Proposed UI email policy put on hold

September 13, 2011

URBANA — A policy governing emails and other electronic communication at the University of Illinois has been put on hold after educational groups raised free-speech concerns about it.

The campus senate was scheduled to discuss the policy Monday afternoon, but the item was pulled from the agenda.

On Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors wrote to the interim Chancellor Robert Easter to express "deep concerns" about the proposed policy, saying it would restrict the First Amendment rights and academic freedom of students and faculty.

"We believe this warrants more serious consideration by senate committees, the Senate Executive Committee and the chancellor’s office," Professor Matthew Wheeler, chairman of the Senate Executive Committee, said Monday.

That will "give us time to sit down and review the letter in detail," agreed Michael Corn, chief privacy and security officer for the university.

The measure is an attempt to create a comprehensive electronic communications policy at the university, pulling together several "disparate computing policies in various stages of being out of date," campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.

But a clause designed to ensure compliance with the state’s ethics act, which forbids the use of state property for political campaigning, raised concerns from Cary Nelson, a UI professor emeritus and president of the AAUP, and Azhar Majeed of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Their letter said the policy’s prohibition on using email and other communications for "political campaigning" would deprive students and faculty of the right to engage in a range of "constitutionally protected political speech and activity."

As a public university, the UI can’t place that kind of restriction on political speech, which was the impetus for the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee, the letter argued.

The policy fails to provide a definition for what constitutes political campaigning, giving administrators "unchecked discretion" in enforcing it, the authors said. They referred to a 2008 incident in which UI employees were told not to wear pins or T-shirts in support of a political candidate or party because of the university’s obligation not to endorse candidates. Then-President B. Joseph White later rescinded the policy after the AAUP raised free-speech concerns.

Corn said Monday that he appreciates the sensitivity to the issue, saying the UI "strongly, strongly, strongly supports free speech. We work in an environment where our goal is to facilitate the exchange of information, not throttle it."

But he added, "We can’t pass a policy that says you can violate state law.

"I am a university employee. I can’t run for mayor and print letterhead in my office. I can’t use the university to put up a website to support my campaign," he said.

"It in no way prohibits the free exchange of ideas and information. That’s all that clause does. It doesn’t create any policy. It simply references the fact that we work as state employees using state resources and are beholden to state law."

The proposed policy also bans electronic communications that "interfere with the mission of the University," as well as "uses that violate other existing University and campus policies." The letter said the policy is too ambiguous.

"If the university decides that faculty expression about union activities, for example, interferes with its mission, this determination alone would be sufficient grounds to prohibit and sanction the expression," the letter said.

Nelson and Majeed regard some existing UI policies as unconstitutional because they ban "acts of intolerance" or "offensive" speech, and fear the new policy would broaden those restrictions.

They also called a requirement for preapproval to send unsolicited emails to more than 100 recipients "onerous." Students and faculty should have the right to alert the campus to urgent issues, such as a threat of violence or important policy change, they said.

Corn said the section is designed to prevent an individual from "spamming" members of the UI community with unsolicited messages and "avoid diluting the communications value of official communications streams." It merely codifies an existing practice for campus mass emails, he said.

Nelson and Majeed said a better approach would be to take action against an individual who abuses email.

Corn said he’s hopeful the issues can be addressed as the policy is further reviewed.

"Technology is evolving and changing faster than anyone can possibly keep up with it," Corn said. "Policy by definition moves slowly."

Corn said the policy had been vetted by three committees in the campus senate, which includes faculty, students and academic professionals.

"The last thing we want to do is violate anyone’s right to free speech," interim Chancellor Robert Easter said Monday.

Schools: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign