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What Makes a ‘Green Light’ Computer Use Policy?

By on January 10, 2014

FIRE has recently been examining some of the best “green light” university policies here on The Torch, including policies regarding harassment and civility. The policies discussed in those entries, maintained by Mississippi State University and North Carolina State University, respectively, are ideal examples for other schools to follow in crafting their own policy. Today, we examine computer and Internet usage policies.

Many universities maintain broad restrictions on students’ ability to express themselves online and over email. Frequently, this occurs because computer use and network use policies are issued by university IT departments with little to no oversight from university administrators who may have a better understanding of the need to protect students’ free speech rights. Whatever the reason, the result is that these policies frequently prohibit wide swaths of constitutionally protected speech, such as “sexually, ethnically, racially, or religiously offensive messages,” any and all “rude” expression, and discussion of “religious or political causes.” Indeed, one need look no further than January’s Speech Code of the Month, a policy maintained by the University of West Alabama that bans “harsh text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.”

One does not need to be a First Amendment expert to recognize the abject silliness of these and similar policies. But that’s also why it’s so gratifying to come across the “green light” IT policies maintained by the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University.

Penn’s “Policy on Acceptable Use of Electronic Resources” states, in relevant part:

Unlawful communications, including threats of violence, obscenity, child pornography, and harassing communications (as defined by law), are prohibited.

This policy prohibits only expression and conduct that falls outside of the First Amendment’s protections. (While Penn is a private institution, it promises (PDF) its students freedom of speech.) There are no broad restrictions found here on merely “offensive” material, or on the expression of views relating to entire topics such as religion or politics. Rather, the policy is narrowly tailored to address only a few, enumerated types of “[u]nlawful communications.” Just as significantly, the qualifier of “as defined by law” following “harassing communications” ensures that the university will read and enforce the policy properly in accordance with the law governing harassment in the educational setting. Given how often FIRE sees colleges and universities apply the “harassment” label to protected speech, this is praiseworthy as well.

Penn’s policy is certainly an excellent model for other schools to follow when writing their own computer use and network use policies. Perhaps this is no surprise coming from an institution that has long enjoyed an overall green light rating. By utilizing a similar policy, other universities can properly address actionable and unlawful conduct without infringing upon free speech.

Penn is joined in this regard by fellow Pennsylvania institution Carnegie Mellon, which maintains a speech-protective “Computing Policy.” That policy provides, in pertinent part:

Any communications that would be improper or illegal on any other medium are equally so on the computer: libelous material, obscene messages, harassment, forgery, threats, etc. However, this is not intended to restrict the free expression of ideas.

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The following activities are expressly prohibited at Carnegie Mellon: [...] Using mail messages to harass or intimidate another person (such as by repeatedly sending unwanted mail or broadcasting unsolicited mail).

This policy makes clear that it targets only unlawful conduct, applying the same First Amendment principles and exceptions to computer use as to other methods of communication. (While Carnegie Mellon is also a private university, like Penn it makes robust promises (PDF) of free speech.) The policy limits itself to expression and conduct falling outside of the First Amendment’s protections, such as “libelous material,” “obscene messages,” and use of email to “harass or intimidate another person.” Not only is there no threat here to constitutionally protected speech, the policy expressly declares that it is “not intended to restrict the free expression of ideas.” You couldn’t ask for much more from a computer use policy in terms of protecting student discourse and dialogue. But then again, this is another institution with an overall green light rating, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising.

Colleges and universities would be well-advised to follow either Penn’s or Carnegie Mellon’s lead in crafting computer use and network use policies of their own. We will have additional examples of green light policies here on The Torch next week.

Schools: Carnegie Mellon University University of Pennsylvania