Date: Sat, 17 Feb 96 03:42 CST From: Jim Thomas Subject: Response to President La Tourette's letter President La Tourette should be commended for his prompt response to the "indecency" provisions of the Telecommunications Act. Although not as strong as it could have been, it seems to reflect a willingness to protect the University community against infringement upon academic freedom and freedom of expression threatened by the provisions. The fourth paragraph of the first page is especially encouraging. It reflects substantive knowledge of the issues, players, and processes in the CDA controversy. If I interpret the President's letter correctly (and if I do not, perhaps somebody will correct me), he is affirming the view that faculty and staff may continue under the "old rules," and that the University will protect us in the event of a challenge to our professional duties as they existed prior to February 8. I infer this from the following: The University has not changed any policy or any operation as a result of this law being passed..... In noting the appropriateness of contacting legislators, the President also reminds us that this is primarily a political issue that cannot be resolved locally. However, given the importance of the issue to NIU, it would seem that a stronger statement in opposition to the provisions would not have been inappropriate. And, while it is helpful to know that the revised Indemnification policy increases our financial protection in the performance of our professional duties, we should remember that Indemnification exists primarily for civil liability. It is not clear how much protection it would afford faculty and staff against criminal charges that might result from violating the CDA provisions. The President writes: Moreover, it is unlikely that reasonable and responsible uses of this communications tool will result in adverse consequences for individual members of the university community. I must disagree. The "indecency" provisions have given at least some faculty second thoughts about the content of material they post because of the law. I, too, have refrained from making accessible on my homepage(s) material that I would not have considered inappropriate prior to the Act. I am also now in the position of being a "Net censor" for what others post, and if the material is in non-compliance with the act, I must decide whether to exercise censorship despite the President's assurances of protection. This "chilling effect" is precisely the type of unacceptable "adverse consequence" that currently exits. Absent from the President's letter was an explicit guideline for the obligations of webmasters, sysads, electronic publishers, list owners, and instructors. As a member of each of the above categories, I remain uncertain about my duties or the liability I face. These issues remain untouched by the TRO (temporary restraining order) that was granted to the ACLU. While the TRO granted restraint on the MAILING provisions of the indecency act, it left untouched the ACCESSIBILITY provisions, which were the most troublesome. While for now I may be safe to mail a newsletter that contains potential "indecency," I can still be prosecuted for archiving (making accessible) that same newsletter. A recent post on an NIU newsgroup containing many instances of the "F" word may be safely mailed, but can it be archived? If not, the the original poster, the list owner, and the sysad could be put at risk. While the President acknowledges the complexity of the issues, there was little in the letter to clarify the immediate questions that still exist. The President might consider the following: 1) Encourage University counsel to attend conferences and participate in other forums that address these issues. 2) Encourage University counsel to participate in local newsgroups such as TOMPAINE or Webmasters to address specific questions that readers have. 3) Implement occasional seminars, workshops or similar sessions for faculty, staff, and students to come together and discuss these issues. 4) Consider sponsoring a regional or national conference on these issues. 5) Implement a committee to establish general guidelines for Net policy. The President's response was admirable and encouraging. The next step is to continue the process of education and protection by stimulating the means to address these issues. Jim Thomas / Sociology