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Northern Illinois U. Commits to Rescinding Overbroad Internet Restrictions

By September 2, 2014

Northern Illinois University’s (NIU’s) student newspaper the Northern Star reported last week that after significant media criticism, the university will revise and clarify its Acceptable Use Policy for information technology resources.

As FIRE reported here on The Torch, the policy states that members of the NIU community may not use the network for “political activities,” and students reported being unable to access social media websites. Additionally, one student posed a screenshot of a warning from NIU stating that it was “highly probable” that accessing the Wikipedia page about the Westboro Baptist Church would violate NIU’s policy, and that the URL had “been recorded for review” under the category of “Illegal or Unethical” pages. Worryingly, many critics seemed placated by NIU’s weak claim that the policy was applicable only to employees and that it posed no First Amendment risk because students could request that websites be un-blocked.

Thankfully, though, NIU hasn’t completely stood its ground. According to the Northern Star, NIU will craft two separate policies for students and employees, respectively, so that students will not be subject to the same types of restrictions that are permissible with respect to employees. This will cure a significant defect in the current policy, which makes no clear distinction between what uses are prohibited only for employees and what are prohibited for students as well. For example, NIU officials, apparently in an effort to address everyone’s supposedly foremost concerns, have emphasized repeatedly that students will be free to access pornography.

Further, the Northern Star reports that only websites “that pose a security risk to the network or the people using it” will be blocked by NIU’s firewall, and that warnings like the one prompted by the Westboro Baptist Church Wikipedia page have been removed while policy revisions are underway. Again, this is an important step in ensuring that students are not chilled from accessing constitutionally protected material, since many students will not risk punishment by clicking through a warning page, even if technically they may do so.

NIU still deserves a skeptical eye, though. Rather than fully admitting their error, administrators are still offering dubious reasons why an overbroad network policy was necessary in the first place. For example, Chief Information Officer Brett Coryell told the Northern Star that revising the acceptable use policy will make it harder for law enforcement to gather critical information in the event of a threat originating on NIU’s network:

“If the Secret Services shows up on campus and wants to know who was sending a threatening email to the president or if the Secret Service shows up on campus and they want to know who was accessing a website about making bombs or something like that, there’s a little bit we can do to try to satisfy their request for information, but I think ultimately … we aren’t going to be able to provide the information about illegal activity that we might have,” Coryell said.

NIU does not make clear how leaving social media and Wikipedia pages available for students to access will hinder efforts to track students making threats.

FIRE will watch closely and provide updates when the new acceptable use policies are released. We hope to see NIU fulfill its legal obligation not to censor information protected by the First Amendment and decline to re-adopt the use of ominous “Web Page Access Warnings” for pages that do not violate its own policies.

Schools: Northern Illinois University