Purdue Admits ‘Overreaction’ in Snowden Censorship Gaffe

October 9, 2015

As the first public university in the country to adopt the University of Chicago’s robust statement on free expression, Purdue University found itself responding this week to reports that it had deleted video of a presentation by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Barton Gellman.

Gellman was the keynote speaker for Purdue’s “Dawn or Doom” colloquium, and he gave a talk on “national security journalism,” which included several slides containing classified information regarding the NSA and Edward Snowden.

In a blog post for The Century Foundation, Gellman said Purdue administrators initially promised him a copy of the video, but later reneged on their promise because they were told some of Gellman’s slides were classified.

Gellman relayed Purdue’s initial explanation, then added an update from Purdue admitting the university overreacted. Gellman writes:

It turns out that Purdue has wiped all copies of my video and slides from university servers, on grounds that I displayed classified documents briefly on screen. A breach report was filed with the university’s Research Information Assurance Officer, also known as the Site Security Officer, under the terms of Defense Department Operating Manual 5220.22-M. I am told that Purdue briefly considered, among other things, whether to destroy the projector I borrowed, lest contaminants remain.

UPDATE: Just after posting this item I received an email from Julie Rosa, who heads strategic communications for Purdue. She confirmed that Purdue wiped my video after consulting the Defense Security Service, but the university now believes it went too far[:]

“In an overreaction while attempting to comply with regulations, the video was ordered to be deleted instead of just blocking the piece of information in question. Just FYI: The conference organizers were not even aware that any of this had happened until well after the video was already gone.”

“I’m told we are attempting to recover the video, but I have not heard yet whether that is going to be possible. When I find out, I will let you know and we will, of course, provide a copy to you.”

The Lafayette Journal and Courier reported that Gellman has questioned Purdue’s relationship with the U.S. government:

Purdue holds a “Facility Security Clearance” from the U.S. government to conduct national security research using classified documents,according to Board of Trustees documents from 2014. Rather than create an entity separate from the university to operate under such a contract, as other peers have done, Gellman said Purdue’s contract and the government’s ability to censor material extend across the entire campus.

“You start off with a promise that if the government let’s you in on its classified secrets, you’ll keep them for the purpose of a research contract,” Gellman said in a phone interview with the Journal & Courier Thursday. “And if that really does spill over into the academic work on the campus as a whole, then you’ve invited the federal government to censor the work that the university is doing, either at a conference or elsewhere.”

FIRE recently praised Purdue’s commitment to free and open debate on campus. It is good to see the university admit its overreach and explore ways to correct it.

Schools:  Purdue University