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Court deals blow to dating-service spammer

Federal appeals court rejects argument that spammers have First Amendment right to flood public universities with spam.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read
An online dating service does not have the right to blast unsolicited e-mail at thousands of University of Texas e-mail addresses, a federal appeals court ruled.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that the university did not run afoul of federal law or the U.S. Constitution when blocking a torrent of spam from White Buffalo Ventures' LonghornSingles.com site.

The University of Texas may "implement the Regents' Rules without violating" spammers' rights, a three-judge panel unanimously concluded.

White Buffalo, an Austin, Texas, start-up that boasts of making "a ton of moolah" by promoting relationship-based Web sites, began its bulk e-mail campaign in February 2003 by filing a freedom of information request that gave it nearly all the university's e-mail addresses. Two months later, it began deluging the school's servers with commercial solicitations--and had its Internet addresses blocked after refusing to stop when asked.

Most spammers might halt their efforts at that point, but White Buffalo was unusually determined. It filed a lawsuit against the University of Texas and sought a court injunction protecting what amounted to a right to spam--citing both the federal Can-Spam Act and the First Amendment, which broadly limits a government university's ability to restrict free speech.

The case appears to be the first in which a court considered how the Can-Spam Act--which overrules most state laws dealing with junk e-mail--regulates how a state university can install spam filters.

In its ruling this week, the 5th Circuit refused to overturn a trial judge's opinion siding with the university. It concluded that the Can-Spam Act was never intended to block an Internet service provider, even one that is part of a government-run university, from filtering out unwanted commercial solicitations. But the judges did suggest that the University of Texas could have taken narrower steps to filter e-mail rather than blocking all correspondence from a range of Internet addresses.

Neither the University of Texas nor White Buffalo immediately responded to a request for comment Wednesday.