The University Record, May 9, 1994

Electronic mail: Community needs to define borders of free speech, harassment

By Rebecca A. Doyle

When the hate speech/free speech debate surged over the computer networks a few weeks ago, it prompted many in the University community to think about communication in an electronic environment.

Electronic communication allows thought expression without voice or face recognition and eliminates preconceptions about status based on age, physical characteristics or even gender. It also generates a feeling of anonymity, which may encourage some to speak more freely than they might in a face-to-face situation, or to speak out in reaction before thinking through a response. E-mail offers an almost limitless audience, breaking national and international boundaries.

In addition, electronic communication presents to some a challenge to circumvent normal procedure and send messages under pseudonyms or other identities not their own.

The University is committed to the free flow of ideas and thoughts in an environment that encourages exploration of new views.

Neither the U-M nor the Information Technology Division (ITD) has a policy that “tells people what they can and cannot say,” says Virginia Rezmierski, assistant to the vice provost for information technology, policy studies.

“There is no policy on the kinds of messages that can be sent,” she adds.

There is a University policy on harassment, she notes, and University officials and the law may determine that some types of electronic messages are harassing and threatening to individuals.

But more important, Rezmierski says, having the community determine where free speech ends and harassment begins must be the responsibility of the users in the community. Determining what is responsible communication is something only the community can do, she says, and it can only do so by “saying loudly when something is offensive or harmful to those receiving it.

“The community needs to say why [a message] is appropriate or inappropriate and let the sender know that it does not meet the standards of, or is destructive to the community, if that is the case.

“In a community of reasoned discourse,” she notes, “freedom of speech and civiliity are both critical. It is important to know the ramifications for the community of what an individual may say, important for the sender to know what the community thinks about it and why.”

Also important, Rezmierski says, is for individuals to define and control their own communication “space.” For some users, a local area network may be as far away from their desks as they ever go in their communications. But for others, particularly students who explore the boundaries of electronic communication, “cruising the Internet” can open other doors, some of which they may wish had remained closed. Choosing whether to keep the communication space limited or open to all communications is the responsibility of the individual, Rezmierski notes.

The recent incident in which a student’s name and password were used without his knowledge or consent to post a threatening racial statement through the Internet on an electronic bulletin board raised several questions that will continue to be discussed:

  • How protective should the Univer-sity be of its environment? Does the University have a responsibility to limit some types of communication?

  • How can members of the University community be educated about controlling their own communication “space”—eliminating unwanted mail they might receive as members of mail groups or conferences?

  • What should users do if they receive or see inappropriate communications, either in their own mail or on electronic bulletin boards? Is it appropriate to forward the material to others?

  • As the University moves to a more distributed environment with many mail options available, how will security issues be handled?

    William A. Doster, senior systems research programmer for ITD, heads the authentication and authorization project for the new environment. Privacy enhanced mail (PEM), he says, is “a high priority. We will not have it in place for the fall term, but it is the new mail protocol that is in the works for the next year.”

    PEM would allow anyone receiving mail from within the same system to be sure that it came from the listed sender. Doster notes, however, that there is not a method to validate all mail messages or posted items that have come to the University from other places.

    Doster and Rezmierski both say that increased knowledge about how users can limit incoming messages, technology that allows users to be sure of the identity of the named sender, and a community that reacts quickly and uniformly to inappropriate messages will preserve the intent of ITD and the University. The intent is that dialog be as encompassing as possible and that the community’s rejection of abuse and harassment will extinguish inappropriate communication.