Civil Liberties

Internet Responsibility


Who's responsible for what happens on the Internet? Princeton University recently tried to forbid its students and professors from using their Princeton e-mail or Web pages to send partisan political messages. The private university said it feared for its 501(c)3 nonprofit status, which forbids such political messages.

After Princeton warned its users to pass on the politicking, the American Civil Liberties Union reminded the school that under New Jersey Supreme Court precedent, even private institutions are bound to respect the state constitution's free speech guarantees. The university backed down. The idea that Princeton's nonprofit status was in danger, says ACLU lawyer David Rocah, is "ridiculous. That's not the law, it can't be, and it never will be. The law prevents the university itself from indulging in political activity, not others using its property. With their logic, a professor using a Princeton phone in a Princeton office couldn't talk about who to vote for."

Princeton will now merely demand that such personal political opinion be clearly marked as that of the sender, not the university. Other universities have also tried to restrict their Internet users in ways that the ACLU thinks smack of censorship, including restricting access to certain Usenet groups that are considered obscene. A University of Oklahoma professor is challenging that school's policy of Usenet restriction, and the ACLU has advised Carnegie-Mellon to drop a similar policy.