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ACLU fails Princeton in free speech

The American Civil Liberties sends a letter to Princeton University officials urging them to reconsider a policy that bans students and staff from using the Princeton computer network for "political purposes."

The American Civil Liberties Union today sent a letter to Princeton University officials urging them to reconsider a policy that bans students and staff from using the Princeton computer network for "political purposes."

ACLU attorneys were notified of the policy by concerned students who received a notice July 19 via email from the vice president of computing and the university general counsel, warning students that the use of computer networks for political purposes would be a violation of Princeton's tax-exempt status.

"A few students forwarded email to a newsgroup asking for opinions, and we legal types jumped on it and said yes, of course, this is infringing your rights to political speech," said Ann Beeson, an ACLU attorney.

Princeton University officials said the notice stems from an incident that could have potentially endangered its tax-exempt status. They said the message was intended only to educate members of the campus, not limit them. The email did not specify what kinds of actions might be construed as using the network for political purposes.

Guidelines for all tax-exempt organizations limit the extent that they may become involved in lobbying or campaigning. If organizations disregard the guidelines, the IRS can revoke their status. But the IRS has made it clear that university students, faculty, and staff can be engaged in political issues as long as they do not represent the university in any official capacity, Beeson said.

Princeton, however, says that the action was based on another recent incident that gave rise to concern. Last year, after a professor took a leave of absence and ran for public office, an individual who was not directly associated with the university circulated a letter via the Princeton network that arrived in email boxes in a manner that suggested a campaign mailing, said Justin Harmon, director of communications for Princeton.

"The issue that it raised was, 'Isn't that like sending out a campaign letter using university stamps and envelopes and stationery?' That violates our tax-exempt rights," Harmon said.

Beeson countered that the messages were clearly not sent by the university and wouldn't affect the school's IRS status. "Princeton felt that was an improper use of the network, but we believe even that speech is protected unless there's something in it that implicitly leads the reader to conclude that it's Princeton University telling you to vote for the candidate," she said. "If it's not Princeton saying vote for X candidate, then the speech should be just as protected as anything else on the network."

Harmon said the issue that was cited in the notice was meant to address email specifically. "This was not intended to interfere with individual political expression, but rather to focus on the specific use of email, which we understood and understand to be different from the kinds of individual political self-expression that we agree and believe ought to be encouraged in classrooms here and everywhere," he said. "Nobody sent out a notice banning students from using the Internet for political purposes. That didn't happen."

But the university's Computer Use Policy contradicts this, saying that the network may not be used for "political purposes" while at the same time failing to define what they are, Beeson said. "The terms 'political purposes' couldn't be broader," she said. "It encompasses all sorts of political speech and political campaigning. It might even prevent you from downloading information from the Clinton-Gore Web site or from political action groups like the ACLU."

The computer policy also says that failure to comply with these guidelines can result in disciplinary action, including exclusion from the computer network.

Harmon said that officials plan to discuss these and other issues and declined to comment further. He expects the university president to respond to the letter when he returns from vacation.

The ACLU plans to give the president ample time to respond and will take action if necessary. "We will definitely file a challenge if needed, but we can't imagine that we won't be able to reach an agreement," Beeson said. "It's fairly clear that Princeton did not intend this result, but it's also very clear that on its face this policy creates real constitutional problems."