Tempest in Tempe: First Amendment in the Desert

In the spirit of the excellent colloquy here about Marvin’s thinking on First Amendment architectures, I bring up this news item: Arizona State University blocked both Web access to, and e-mail from, the change.org Web site. ASU students had begun a petition demanding that the university reduce tuition. The university essentially made three claims as to why it did so (below, in order of increasing stupidity):

  1. It was a technical mistake;
  2. Change.org was spamming ASU; and
  3. ASU needs to “protect the use of our limited and valuable network resources for legitimate academic, research and administrative uses.”

#1 and #2 run together. If spam is the problem, you don’t need to block access to the Web site. However, if you are concerned that students are going to read the petition, and sign it, you do need to block access to the Web site.

For #2, sorry, ASU, this isn’t spam. Spam is unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail. Change.org is, allegedly, sending unsolicited political e-mail. And that’s protected by the First Amendment – see, for example, the Virginia Supreme Court’s analysis of that state’s anti-spam law that covered political messages. Potential political spammers have a sharp disincentive to fill recipient’s inboxes – it’s a sure-fire way to annoy them into opposing your position.

For #3, ASU doesn’t get to determine what academic and research uses are “legitimate.” If they throttle P2P apps, that’s fine. If they limit file sizes for attachments, no problem. But deciding that the message from Change.org is not “legitimate” is classic, and unconstitutional, viewpoint discrimination.

This looks like censorship. I think it’s more likely to be stupidity: someone in ASU’s IT department decided to block these messages as spam, and to filter outbound Web requests to the site contained within those messages. But: with great power over the network comes great responsibility. Well-intentioned constitutional violations are still unlawful. It would also help if ASU’s spokesperson simply admitted the mistake rather than engaging in idiotic justification.

As I mention in Orwell’s Armchair, public actors are increasingly important sources of Internet access. But when ASU and other public universities take on the role of ISP, they need to remember that they are not AOL: their technical decisions are constrained not merely by tech resources, but by our commitment to free speech. Let’s hope the Sun Devils cool off on the filtering…

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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