8 February, 1996 President John E. La Tourette LH 301 NIU Dear President La Tourette: My name is Jim Thomas. I am a professor in sociology at NIU. I was tenured in 1986 and given an early promotion to full professor five years later. I have devoted my life at NIU to teaching, research, and service, and I believe my record demonstrates that I have been reasonably successful. Because of my dedication to my vocation, and because of the oath I swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution when hired at NIU, I am compelled to confess that I am not what I seem, and I seek your assistance. You see, I am a criminal, and I fear that I may be indicted and prosecuted for my felonious acts by the Federal government. I also confess to conspiring in my felonious activities with other NIU faculty and staff, which compounds my crime. In my own defense, I was not a criminal when I arose today, Thursday, February 8. Yet, just a few hours later, I now find myself at risk of discovery and apprehension. Today, at 11 a.m. (CST), President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which made me, and other NIU faculty and staff, criminals. Buried in the Act is an amendment called the "Communications Decency Act" (CDA). The intent of this legislation is to ban "indecency" on the Internet, the electronic communication network in which I work as part of my professional teaching, service, and research duties. The broad language of the Act prohibits actions that most of us agree should be prohibited, and for which laws already exist, such as banning obscenity and child pornography. But, it prohibits much more. As the leader of one of the largest Universities in the U.S., I'm certain that you have been following the CDA controversy closely. You likely read the following from the Chronical of Higher Education: COLLEGES WORRY ABOUT NEW LIABILITY FOR INTERNET CONTENT The recent passage of the telecommunications reform bill has some college administrators worried over new liability issues for educational institutions that might unknowingly make "indecent" material available to minors through their Internet access operations. In addition, they've expressed concern over potential First Amendment violations if they censor the content too heavily. "We have programs on campus about date rape, unwanted pregnancy, and reproductive-health options, so I don't see how we'd tolerate censorship of that kind of information in the electronic format," says the head of telecommunications at Carnegie Mellon University. (Chronicle of Higher Education 9 Feb 96 A23) I'm certain that you know that the language of the Act prohibits "indecency" from being collected or stored in, and transferred by, computer systems. As astonishing as it may seem, the Act also limits discussion of abortion information, criminalizes dissemination of certain types of drug information, and allows local jurisdictions to determine what constitutes "indecency." In short, the CDA criminalizes in electronic media that which enjoys First Amendment protections if in, for example, the NIU library or a class text. You have likely already consulted with NIU counsel, who have told you that "indecency" is a vague concept, and what is considered valuable information in DeKalb, Illinois, may be offensive to those in Memphis, Tennessee. So, you are aware of the risk that the lowest threshhold of tolerance for "indecency" may now become the national standard. Reading material that we routinely assign to students or make available to 17 year old freshmen in the library may now be criminalized if made available on a World Wide Web homepage. Works of art that we appreciate in exhibits cannot be safely made available on the Net. Discussions that we have in Sandburg Auditorium, NIU classrooms, or on the pages of the Northern Star can be criminalized if conducted in an electronic discussion group or stored in electronic archives. Forms of expression heard routinely on television now put authors at risk if posted on the Net. Lyrics from musicians ranging from the Beatles to contemporary rap or "grunge" could be restricted from the Net and subject those who participate in the discussion of such lyrics to criminal sanctions. The new law puts not only the publisher of "indecency' at risk. It also makes the provider of the computer service on which "indecency" occurs equally liable for criminal prosecution. This makes me a criminal, and it places at criminal risk all other NIU faculty and staff who are required, as part of their duties, to maintain the computer systems on which possible transgressions might occur. In fact, some legal analysts suggest that, because of a quirk in statutory wording, this letter places you at risk. This letter makes you aware of criminal activity, and by failing to address it, you may be complicit by knowingly providing the resources for the crimes. Here are a few ways in which the new law affects me: I currently conduct a class in which 50 percent of the course is conducted on the Internet by use of a discussion group, homepages, and electronic mail. Some of my course material, including reproductions of court cases, put me in non-compliance with the law if posted on the class homepage. Any discussions in the class discussion group that violate the new law will put me and the poster in non-compliance. This restricts course content and also restricts electronic lecturing and making some class lecture notes electronically available. Any discussion of "indecent" material that occurs on, for example, TOMPAINE--an NIU faculty/staff discussion list--will put me at risk. Any homepage material that a faculty member publishes that violates the proscriptions in the law will put me at risk. Why am I accountable for the actions of others? Because I also maintain sun.soci, the sociology department's Internet-connected computer system that encourages use of the new technology for pedagogy, exploration of intellectual and artistic issues, and discussion. The Act makes me liable for what occurs on the system. I also publish an electronic newsletter/journal with over a quarter of a million readers (Cu Digest). The newsletter is in demonstrable non-compliance with the law, because it contains, among other material, "indecent" public documents and legal decisions available in any library. The ACLU and other organizations have joined to file a restraining order against the Act. Senator Patrick Leahy will soon introduce legislation to repeal the Act. Representative Patricia Schroeder will be introducing legislation to repeal the restrictive language in the CDA. But, until and unless the Act is changed, it has created a "criminal culture" at NIU. You can find considerable information on the Act at http://www.soci.niu.edu/~critcrim/cda/cda.html. I urge you and NIU legal counsel to examine and respond to the issues. I see two possible responses you could make: First, you could order all "indecent" material to be removed from NIU homepages, create a barrier that prohibits newsgroup and Usenet access on campus, and create a monitoring system that would assure that the content on all computer systems with Internet access at NIU be approved. In short, you could exercise prior restraint, restrict academic freedom, and engage in censorship. Of course, you must first ascertain what is "indecent," and in what jurisdictions such standards of "indecency" might apply. An alternative response would be to take a public stand against the restrictive provisions of the CDA, support freedom of expression, and join in opposition to the "chilling effect" that the current legislation is producing. A few years ago, you wrote me a memo. You concluded that memo with the quotation: "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Given such a commitment, I am confident that you will select the second option. Previous pleas to urge NIU administrators to act on these issues have failed. Given the urgency, I trust that you decisively will act where others have not. Sincerely, Jim Thomas, Professor Sociology/Criminal Justice Northern Illinois University jthomas@sun.soci.niu.edu cc: TOMPAINE@sun.soci.niu.edu Norden Gilbert, NIU Legal Counsel Gian Sarup, Chair, Sociology Frederick Kitterle, Dean, LA&S