2nd Letter to Princeton Regarding Restriction of Computer Access for Political Purposes

August 23, 1996

August 23, 1996

Make a Difference

Your support helps the ACLU defend privacy rights and a broad range of civil liberties.

Give Now

BY FACSIMILE, E-MAIL, & REGULAR MAIL

Howard S. Ende
Office of General Counsel 
120 Alexander Street, 2nd Floor
Princeton, New Jersey 08544-2086

RE: Computer Use Policy

Dear Mr. Ende:

We believe the clarification you issued yesterday regarding Princeton's policy on use of the computer network for political purposes still falls short of constitutional requirements. We suggest a meeting with you and President Shapiro to discuss the issue further; we are both available for a meeting during the week of September 9 - 13.

Specifically, the memo issued yesterday will further confuse Princeton students and staff regarding their political speech rights on the computer network, and thus will inhibit speech protected by the New Jersey State Constitution. The memo rightly concedes that the policy statement dated July 19, 1996 is "overly broad," and that "students, faculty and staff are generally free to communicate their person views on political candidates using e- mail and the internet." However, the memo goes on to state that "Nonetheless, we continue to ask everyone to bear in mind that the IRS may deem personal use of University resources for campaign activities, including use of the internet, to be political campaign activity by the University itself."

This final sentence is inaccurate as a matter of law. As stated in our letter dated August 15, 1996, personal use of the network for "campaign activities" is constitutionally protected political speech and in no way threatens Princeton's tax-exempt status. See ACLU Letter to Princeton, 8/15/96, at 2. Because Princeton provides fair and equal access to the computer network to all University members, and allows use of the network for a variety of non-political purposes, the provision of computing facilities to students and staff, even for campaigning activities, will not jeopardize the university's 501(c)(3) status. The computer network is analogous to the Princeton commons, where university students and staff have long been free to distribute and obtain campaign literature and to encourage votes for particular political candidates. The fact that this activity is taking place on the computer network makes it no less protected political speech. In fact, campaign literature is arguably the most fundamental type of speech in our democratic system of government. There is nothing more important in choosing our political leaders than knowing what they stand for.

The recent statement is also vague and fails to notify university members clearly as to whether personal use of the network for "campaign activities" is a violation of university policy. In addition, the University now has issued at least five separate policies and statements that govern use of the computer network for political purposes: the August 22, 1996 clarification memorandum; the July 19, 1996 memorandum on "Internet use and Policy;" the "Computer Use" guidelines at page 11 of the Rights, Rules, Responsibilities handbook; the "Guidelines Relating to the Tax-Exempt Status of the University and Political Activities," at pages 14-15 of the Rights, Rules, Responsibilities handbook; and the 1995-96 "Guidelines for use of Campus and Network Computing Resources." These conflicting policies and statements are sure to cause confusion among university members, which will inhibit students and staff from exercising their right to free speech on the computer network.

If you continue to believe that 501(c)(3) restrictions prevent certain political communications over computer networks, we urge you to seek an advisory ruling on the matter from the Internal Revenue Service. In the meantime, all five policies and statements must be clearly and unequivocally suspended, and a statement must be issued clarifying that all university members and groups may engage in political speech and campaign activities over the computer network so long as they do not purport to speak for the university itself.

Because we are nearing the end of an election year, it is crucial that this matter be resolved quickly in order to ensure that Princeton students and staff are able to exercise fully their political speech rights.

Thank you for your prompt response to our prior letter and your willingness to continue this important discussion.

Very truly yours,

Ann Beeson, Staff Attorney
American Civil Liberties Union
National Legal Department
132 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036
(212) 944-9800 x788

 

David Rocah, Staff Attorney
American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey
2 Washington Place
Newark, NJ 07102
(201) 642-2086

cc: President Harold Shapiro

Statistics image