The University Record, October 22, 1997

Policy addresses electronic access
to potentially offensive material

By Theresa M. Hofer
Information Technology Division

You are at a Campus Computing Site waiting for something to print to a shared printer. You notice a graphic printed by someone else--a graphic that you find highly offensive and disturbing. You know that others have a right to access and print whatever material they like, but what about your right to not be inadvertently exposed to material that you find offensive?

Culminating four years of work, the recently released "Policy and Guidelines Regarding Electronic Access to Potentially Offensive Material" articulates some of the University's key principles as they apply to information technology and the issues rais ed in the scenario above.

Policies reinforcing the University's commitment to freedom from censorship and freedom from purposeful harassment have been in place for several years. As Internet use skyrocketed, however, questions arose about how to apply existing University policies to the electronic environment.

Work on a policy began in 1994 and a memo sent to deans, directors and department heads that addressed the issue became policy. Legal issues, culminating in a June Supreme Court ruling on the Communications Decency Act, delayed formal implementation and inclusion in the Standard Practice Guide, section 601.16, until last July.

The policy seeks to balance the right of members of the University community to access whatever electronic material they need and to express themselves freely, which carries with it the responsibility not to expose others to material they find offensive.

The policy affirms the University's commitment to an environment in which censorship is not tolerated: "Censorship is incompatible with the goals of an institution of higher education. Research and instruction take many forms. Therefore, information accessible on the network may not be restricted through censorship."

At the same time, the policy recognizes that "individuals should not be unwittingly exposed to offensive material by the deliberate and knowing acts of others. The University is a community of individuals with diverse values, beliefs and sensitivities. Individuals must be allowed to choose what they wish to access for their own purposes."

"If people feel that they are stepping into a zone that is hostile to them when they come to work, they are not able to function as well as they could if they were in a neutral environment," says Sue Rasmussen, associate director of affirmative action . "The potential for offensive material coming into the workplace has increased exponentially," she explains.

The Affirmative Action Office got involved in development of the policy because of concerns in some areas that potentially offensive materials left in public view were creating a hostile environment. This is prohibited by both University policy and federal law.

The first part of the policy restates the University's commitment to freedom of expression. "Even in the electronic environment, where things can happen fast and furiously and spread widely, we do not censor based on content," Rezmierski says.

The second part of the policy underscores the University's commitment to an environment in which individuals "should not be unwittingly exposed to offensive material by the deliberate and knowing acts of others," with "deliberate and knowing" being the key to understanding the policy.

"If you are unwittingly exposed to something by the accidental act of someone, that's not covered by the policy," Rasmussen explains. However, if this does happen to you, you have a responsibility to speak up, either directly to the originator or through a third party. Most of these situations can be resolved just by letting someone know there is a problem.

If someone continues to do something considered offensive after being asked to stop, the behavior is considered deliberate rather than inadvertent. Rezmierski notes that the policy isn't just talking about censorship and harassment. "We're talking about education, about social cognition, about sensitivity. We want to encourage students--and everyone in the community--to become more sensitive to each other's points of view."

A more complete article on the policy appears in the Oct. 13 issue of Information Technology Digest, available on paper and on the Web at http://www.itd.umich.edu/ITDigest/1097/feat01.html. The complete text of the new policy, SPG 601.16, as well as the texts of the referenced policies can be found in the SPG Online at http://www.umich.edu/~spgonlin/.

A text file of the policy is available on the Information Technology Policies and Guidelines Web page: http://www.umich.edu/~wwwitd/policies/.

Questions about this policy can be addressed to it.policy.studies@umich.edu. To discuss possible violations of this policy or related U-M policies on freedom of speech, proper use of information techno logy resources, information resources and networks, or sexual harassment, contact the General Counsel's Office, 764-0304; the Information Technology Division User Advocate, 763-8950; or the Office of Human Resources and Affirmative Action, 763-0235.