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Email Policy at University of Colorado-Denver Alarms Free Speech Advocates

Email Policy at University of Colorado-Denver Alarms Free Speech Advocates

“a mind-numbingly stupid and blatantly unconstitutional policy”

This is so awful that it got the ‘speech code of the month’ from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The College Fix reports:

University of Colorado-Denver bans email that ‘might’ offend ‘ordinary’ people

College administrator to lawyer: Draft a policy that I can use against any student or instructor who annoys me.

(20 minutes later)

Lawyer to administrator: You’re gonna love this.

Even by the standards of college speech codes, the University of Colorado-Denver has a mind-numbingly stupid and blatantly unconstitutional policy on email you’re allowed to send through the campus IT system.

The taxpayer-funded university is featured as the Speech Code of the Month by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It earned a “red light,” the worst rating, in FIRE’s speech code database solely because of the email policy.

Here’s the first section under “Restrictions”:

Do NOT use email:
a. To create, send, forward or store emails with messages or attachments that might be illegal or considered offensive by an ordinary member of the public. (e.g., sexually explicit, racist, defamatory, abusive, obscene, derogatory, discriminatory, threatening, harassing or otherwise offensive).

Here’s another stunningly overbroad prohibition:

e. To send any disruptive, offensive, unethical, illegal or otherwise inappropriate matter, including offensive comments about race, gender, color, disability, age, sexual orientation, pornography, terrorism, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs or national origin, hyperlinks or other references to indecent or patently offensive websites and similar materials, jokes, chain letters and hoaxes, charity requests, viruses or malicious software.

f. For any other illegal, unethical, or unauthorized purpose.

The email policy even orders students not to “store” supposedly offensive messages, meaning “they’re even on the hook for failing to immediately delete someone else’s offensive email,” Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform at FIRE, notes in a blog post.

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Comments

This policy could ban just about anything. For example, one of the most important e-mails an instructor might send would be something like:
“I’m sick, so I’ll have to cancel the 10:00 lecture.”

That e-mail could get him fired because it’s:
1. An “unauthorized purpose.” (Is there an authorized list?)
2. Disruptive. (It causes a class to be canceled.)
3. Unethical. (If you think he should have gotten a substitute.)

This is where I feel FIRE might be misunderstanding their mandate a bit. When I was an undergrad, it was explicitly spelled out in the AUP that a university email address was provided as an academic resource and was solely to be used for purposes directly related to one’s studies. Of course everyone used them for personal matters and the university knew it, but the contract made it very clear that your email account was university property. No different from the library, the labs or the classrooms.

That legal boilerplate isn’t an attempt to “restrict freedom of speech”, it’s what you’d find in any private organization. Don’t use your organization-provided email account to do non-organization-related things, like sending dick pics to your co-workers.

Certainly things get murky when the organization in question is a publicly-funded university, but saying “you can’t use your university-proivded email account to send spam or chain letters” isn’t much different from saying “you can’t march into the library and loudly shout political slogans at students trying to study”.

    Milhouse in reply to daniel_ream. | December 16, 2020 at 4:30 pm

    Sorry, Daniel, but I think you’re wrong on this one, and FIRE is right.

    Yes, the university can ban spam, chain letters, and dick pics, and it can ban shouting anything in the library, but it probably can’t ban political slogans (it can do that in a limited forum, but not in a traditional forum), and it definitely can’t ban only those slogans that the person administering the policy finds “offensive” (it can’t do that even in a limited forum).

    It certainly can’t ban email that “might be [..] considered offensive by an ordinary member of the public [..] racist [..] derogatory, discriminatory, [..] or otherwise offensive”, nor can it ban “offensive comments about race, gender, color, disability, age, sexual orientation, pornography, terrorism, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs or national origin, hyperlinks or other references to indecent or patently offensive websites and similar materials”.

surfcitylawyer | December 15, 2020 at 4:33 pm

1. If they want the university email to be used only for official university purposes say so.
2. Many universities want alumni to use alma mater’s email address. Easier for the school and alumni association to send fundraiser emails.
You cannot have both 1 and 2.

    daniel_ream in reply to surfcitylawyer. | December 16, 2020 at 11:15 am

    You mean like this part?

    B. POLICY STATEMENT
    1. Purpose
    University email services are provided to support the academic, business and research missions of the university. All emails processed by the university information technology systems and networks are considered to be the property of the university

    As I said, this isn’t a “speech code”, it’s a bog standard AUP for email: your organizational email account belongs to your organization, not you, you have no expectation of privacy and the organization may dictate how you use it.

    If there’s some reason why a publicly funded university can’t say that then by all means explain, but this isn’t a free speech issue.

      Milhouse in reply to daniel_ream. | December 16, 2020 at 4:35 pm

      It is a free speech issue. Yes, it’s an organizational account and the university can restrict how it’s used, but not in this way. It can restrict all non-academic use and enforce that rigorously; but if it chooses to do so it must do it in a strictly viewpoint-neutral way, which means it can’t have the policy as worded above.

Anonymous Bosh | December 15, 2020 at 5:17 pm

I know this gets asked all the time, but aren’t today’s administrators yesterday’s hippy protestors intent on “stickin’ it to The Man”?

I remember back in 1984 when TV comedians made endless fun of the paranoia re: Big Brother…

This isn’t about spam or chain letters. Just about everything is “offensive” to somebody. Some in the perpetually-offended class find the mere mention of Christmas offensive. If you were to send or receive and retain emails containing Christmas greetings, you would be in violation of this policy.

Others may take offense at references to Islam as the “religion of peace” or to BLM as a bunch of anti-American Marxists and their anarchist Antifa cohorts.

Who get to make those determinations and based on what criteria?

    daniel_ream in reply to Idonttweet. | December 16, 2020 at 11:19 am

    If you were to send or receive and retain emails containing Christmas greetings, you would be in violation of this policy.

    Yes.

    Protip: that’s exactly what would happen at any organization that provided you an email account for organizational purposes. Now, most organizations won’t bother to enforce it except in egregious cases, but they always retain the option.

Further proof that even soi-disant right-wingers are Communists when it comes to their free stuff.

Organization: Here is an email account branded with our corporate identity. These accounts cost time and money to provision and maintain and belong to the organization, not you. You may only use it for organization business.

You: Can I use it to send dank political memes to my bros?

Organization: No.

You: FASCIST!!!!

    Milhouse in reply to daniel_ream. | December 16, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    If they’re treating it as a limited forum, they can ban all memes, or even just all political memes; but they can’t only ban “dank” ones, whatever that means in this context (I only know the word in the sense of “damp and chilly”, but I don’t think that’s what you meant).

      MajorWood in reply to Milhouse. | December 17, 2020 at 5:20 pm

      I often associate dank with “warm and inviting,” but maybe that’s just me. 😉

      U. Maryland recently had an issue with a University and Alumni wide email which was even worse, since it was strongly suggested that either an upper level IT person was complicit in its distribution, or their system security was severely lacking.

UPDATE: The University has realized its error and changed its policy.

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