Bowing to pressure from civil-rights groups, Princeton University has reversed its policy banning students and staff from using its computer networks for "political purposes."
The American Civil Liberties Union--which had protested the policy on the grounds that it was unconstitutional--hopes the decision at the Ivy League university sets a precedent for other groups that might consider similar regulation.
Although the ACLU admits that Princeton's policy was most likely a misunderstanding, the Princeton case highlights the kind of new issues facing institutions which are racing to keep up with Internet technology.
Princeton's policy, which was implemented on July 19 via email to students, warned them that using computer networks for political purposes would be a violation of Princeton's tax-exempt status. Under the policy, students could not "participate in, or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."
Outraged students contacted the ACLU who proceeded to contact Princeton with the intention to file a lawsuit if necessary. The ACLU urged the university to end its policy in an August 15 letter to university officials and again in a follow-up letter one week later.
Princeton officials defended the policy, but the ACLU argued that it created "strong constitutional problems."
ACLU attorneys and Princeton officials finally communicated during a long telephone conference last Thursday, according to Ann Beeson, staff counsel with the ACLU.
As a result of the meeting, Howard Ende, the university's general counsel, reversed himself and said it is not Princeton's policy to prohibit the university from using Princeton's computer network for personal political discourse.
"Our goal as an educational institution is to foster the free exchange of ideas to the greatest extent possible," Ende wrote in a letter to The Daily Princentonian last week.
University officials plan to review the policy over the next few weeks to "incorporate any changes which may be necessary as a result of the special characteristics of the Internet; to the extent those rules and regulations do not reflect the policy herein articulated, revisions will be pursued," according to Ende.
Students make up a large portion of Internet traffic, and universities and colleges are struggling to set guidelines that don't interfere with free speech rights.
"If we can convince Princeton then hopefully Princeton will serve as a good example for everyone else," Beeson said today.
The reversal is a "worthy resolution of the matter," but the ACLU's work is far from over, she said. "It's going to be a long process to educate appropriate administrators, universities, legislators, and businesses about the Internet."
Beeson added that Princeton's policy was most likely a misunderstanding and wasn't intended to limit free speech. "I think they realized what they were doing once they took the time to learn about how the Internet operates," Beeson said.