Civil Liberties

NIU Says Crazy Internet Policy Doesn't Apply to Students, But It Does!


Alex Baumgarner / Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, I reported that Northern Illinois University maintains a restrictive Internet use policy that warns students to avoid websites deemed harmful by the administration. Web surfers at NIU are not supposed to use the internet for social media, advertisement, or politics. This policy violates free speech law, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

NIU responded, issuing a statement disputing that students were being turned away from certain websites:

"I want to assure students that — contrary to some Internet reports — they will have access to social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and others," said NIU Vice President and Chief Information Officer Brett Coryell.  "NIU is wholly committed to allowing free and open access to information and only considers blocking network traffic that constitutes a well known threat as determined by the broader IT security community."

A spokesperson for NIU told me that my reporting was "totally false and cites unreliable sources." He also said there was no harm in simply warning students not to visit certain websites. Finally, the NIU statement claims that certain problematic aspects of the policy—like the social media restriction—only apply to employees, while others—like the politics restriction—are unenforced.

As FIRE's Susan Kruth notes, these clarifications from NIU do not assuage the fears of civil libertarians:

Characterizing that ominous notice received by students attempting to visit such "Illegal or Unethical" websites as Wikipedia as simply "portions of NIU's longstanding acceptable use policy" is an impressive exercise in damage-control spin, but it certainly doesn't fix the problem. The bottom line is that a firewall maintained by NIU, a public university, is telling students that clearly protected content, like a Wikipedia page, is probably "Illegal or Unethical" and students risk punishment by going there. That's a problem. And that kind of bizarrely threatening and heavy-handed warning will likely achieve the same result as simply blocking the website, at least for students who value their academic careers.

Furthermore, NIU's assertion that portions of the policy are only aimed at employees is simply untrue:

The text of the policy emphatically does not support the claim that the policy addresses employees and not students. It states that "all individuals, including, but not limited to, employees, students, customers, volunteers, and third parties, unconditionally accept the terms of this policy." (Emphasis added.) The policy does not indicate that certain provisions apply only to employees. If parts of the policy concern only employees, they should be clearly labeled as such. They aren't. If NIU wants to regulate staff use of the Internet, it should write a separate staff policy—making sure that it applies only to non-academic staff, of course, since professors also shouldn't have to receive warnings when trying to visit Wikipedia!

I would second Kruth's recommendation that NIU rewrite its internet use policy so that students and professors again feel free to use the internet for whatever Constitutionally-protected purposes they so choose.