Princeton backs off Internet restriction

School removes ban on on-line political use under ACLU pressure

NEW JERSEY — Princeton University reversed in September a newly issued policy that would have prohibited use of its Internet access and e-mail systems for “political purposes” after widespread criticism and a threatened ACLU lawsuit.

After several months of policy clarifications and contentious heat from Princeton students and staff, the university backed away from a policy that would have potentially disciplined individuals for campaigning or even downloading information from candidates’ web pages.

The issue took on immediate importance for all sides, considering the recent presidential race. Massie Ritsch, a senior writer at the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, said, “It’s the case of a new medium that1s not quite understood.”

Last July, Princeton reiterated its previously unenforced ban on individual use of the school1s computers for political purposes. In a letter to the university community, Princeton quoted its regulations as specifying that “The computing and network resources of the University may not be used by members of the University community for…political purposes.”

The school’s strengthened resolve to reign in policy violations was brought about by a concern for the school’s tax-exempt status. School administrators said they believed they could be held accountable for partisan communications sent over its computer system. Under the Internal Revenue Service Code, certain non-profit organizations cannot engage in partisan activities.

The ACLU, which received complaints about the school’s policy through its New Jersey office, disputed the university’s claims. They countered that while the tax code says the university itself cannot support political positions, students, faculty and staff are explicitly exempted. ACLU lawyers also accused the university’s restrictions of violating the New Jersey Constitution.

In August, Princeton admitted the previous memo was over-broad and clarified its stance. The new memo stated that while campus members were “generally free” to communicate political views, electronic campaign activities were still not allowed.

In a written reply, the ACLU criticized the school for not rescinding the ban on political activity completely. Likening online political work to the right of distributing campaign literature on campus, the ACLU emphasized Princeton’s obstructive policies were still violating students’ rights.

Ann Beeson, the ACLU national office staff attorney in charge of computer censorship issues, has said that while it is important for the university to not be specifically associated with partisan material, that could be done without limiting the First Amendment rights of the campus community.

The ACLU further urged the school to settle the matter quickly as not to interrupt campus involvement in the general election.

In a mid-September submission to The Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s general counsel Howard S. Ende completely rescinded the school1s earlier statements.

“It is not Princeton’s goal to prohibit individual members of the university community from using Princeton’s computer network for personal political discourse,” he wrote. “Our goal as an educational institution is to foster the free exchange of ideas to the greatest extent possible.”

The ACLU congratulated Princeton on its change in policy. The organization has also said it is working on guidelines to help other universities ensure free expression on the Internet.

reports, Winter 1996-97