Arizona State University (ASU) has restored access to the petition website Change.org after blocking it due to dubious concerns about "spam" emails coming from the site related to a petition advocating lower tuition costs at the university. On Friday, FIRE wrote ASU asking that it immediately restore access to Change.org and assure its students that it does not block access to websites that host content critical of the university. Responding to the national outcry, which was first launched by media reform organization Free Press, that is just what ASU did late on Friday.
ASU blocked access to Change.org in December 2011, shortly after an ASU student started a petition on the site calling on ASU to "Reduce The Costs Of Education For Arizona State University Students." ASU did not provide any notice or explanation of its action to students at the time, but the story rapidly began to gain notoriety last week, prompting the university to release a statement:
ASU began blocking messages from the Change.org server in December after it was discovered as the source of such a spamming action. Although the individual who sent the email may not consider himself a spammer, he acquired a significant number of ASU email addresses which he used to send unsolicited, unwanted email.
However, as FIRE wrote in our letter to ASU:
While ASU may take certain content- and viewpoint-neutral measures to protect the integrity of its network, the timing of ASU’s actions in this case has created the unmistakable impression that ASU has used its spam policy as a pretext to deny access to a petition because of content that is critical of the university and its administration.
FIRE is pleased that ASU acted so quickly once the national spotlight focused on its overreaction. But this case also reveals what FIRE has been saying about so-called spam: one person’s spam is another’s activism, and there is no right to be free from occasional political email.
Just ask Michigan State University (MSU) student government member Kara Spencer, who was threatened with suspension after she emailed a carefully selected list of faculty regarding MSU’s plans to shorten the school’s academic calendar and freshman orientation schedule. MSU was ramming the decision through with minimal time for debate and discussion. Despite the fact that her email was timely, carefully targeted, and concerned a campus issue, Spencer was found guilty of violating MSU’s "spam" policy. Under public pressure, MSU withdrew the charges but then passed an unconstitutional email usage policy that made Spencer’s activism impossible.
Universities should be wary of invoking the rationale of "spam" just because student activists are emailing other members of the campus community about important campus issues. It’s embarrassing for a major research university to argue (as MSU has done) that it can’t handle the traffic, and it’s even worse to invoke a "spam" policy at just the moment when people are criticizing the university.