Cybertalk 2/19/96: NU Putting Shackles on Web Community


(For background, read ASG officer may resign over Web policy. -Robert)


The Internet provides a new, global frontier for human existence. Just like the frontier of the Wild West, the Internet is viewed by those unfamiliar with it as a wild and "lawless" environment. This prompts those in power, including Northwestern administrators, to flex their muscles and rush in to "crack down" on such a "lawless" place. Unfortunately, efforts at regulating the Internet wind up being a thinly veiled power grab instead of a thoughtful application of existing law.

On a nationwide level, the Communications Decency Act is the latest example. The Internet's global nature presents a large problem for any sort of regulation. How will some county sheriff prosecute people in the Bahamas for running a web site on sex education? The ridiculousness of the CDA shows how far some are willing to go to extend their power.

Last year, as a result of the Asian-American Advisory Board hunger strike, the NU administration discovered how students could use the power of the Internet. People all over the world were able to read about the hunger strike through the web pages of the Daily Northwestern and AAAB.

Now NU is attempting to blackmail the Associated Student Government into agreeing to web publishing restrictions for student groups. The administration wants ASG to limit what links student groups offer and who authors the group's web pages. Until then, the administration will not turn over the student organization web server to ASG, as had been planned for by the end of Winter Quarter.

The facade for this action is concern over NU's liability for web published material. First, prohibiting links to personal pages from student group web areas will not remove any liability which might exist because personal web pages are easily accessible through NUInfo. Secondly, NU is no more liable for web material than it is for posters or T-shirts that NU organizations might produce, yet it does not impose prior restraint on such activities.

The administration's actions become even more questionable because web pages enjoy First Amendment rights. The Web is just another means of publishing. Information Technology acknowledges this fact by running seminars on "publishing information on the World Wide Web." Since NU wants to control who publishes on a student group web area, I guess we can expect them to soon control who can publish in a student newspaper.

Additionally, the Supreme Court has stated that it is best to have clear separation between student publications and collegiate administrations. Administrations that remove themselves from the control loop also remove themselves from any liability for what may be published. This also reduces the likelihood of lawsuits, since the "deep pockets" of the university are removed as a factor for any awards.

As an academic institution, NU should be proud to allow the community unfettered discourse. But rather than being proud of the community it has developed and protecting its rights, NU is afraid of what its people might do. Instead of being a shining beacon within our stormy world, NU has given in to worldly vices and slapped leg irons onto the community so that ideas may not run freely.


This document may be distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice. It cannot, however, be reprinted without express written permission of Students Publishing Company. All material published herein, except advertising or where indicated otherwise, is copyright © 1995 Students Publishing Company.


2/19/96 - Robert Lentz (r-lentz@nwu.edu)

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