NIU RESPONDS TO TELECOMMUNICATIONS BILL _________________________________________________________________ President John E. La Tourette February 16, 2020 _________________________________________________________________ Since passage earlier this month of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, colleges and universities across the country have been struggling to understand the potential implications of the bill's so-called "indecency" provisions as they relate to faculty, staff and student use of the Internet. As you may know, a federal judge in Philadelphia recently granted a temporary restraining order that prohibits the U.S. Justice Department from enforcing the indecency provisions; however even that decision left supporters and opponents confused. Clearly, this issue will not be definitively resolved anytime soon, and we recognize the need to address campus concerns in the interim. In consultation with NIU legal counsel and policy experts at the American Council on Education and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, I offer the following thoughts. At the heart of the controversy are provisions which prohibit Internet users from sending "indecent" material to minors or from making such material available in any way that could be accessible to children. Critics have also charged that a little-noticed provision in the indecency section of the legislation would ban all discussion of abortion on computer networks. (On this point, President Clinton has clearly stated that the Justice Department will not enforce a provision that is clearly in violation of the First Amendment.) Two basic issues define this controversy: the definition of indecency, and institutional and individual liability. As these are issues of infinite complexity, no official or organization has yet issued a definitive interpretation of the legal issues involved. The American Council on Education, the American Library Association and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities are working in Washington to craft technical amendments to the Telecommunications Bill that would resolve many of the issues that concern their member institutions. Additionally, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisconsin), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill (SB1567) on February 9 which would strip out the indecency provisions altogether. Controversy surrounding use of the Internet clearly identifies a mismatch between the speed of technological advancement and our nation's ability to thoughtfully deal with ensuing constitutional questions. Further, the legal questions with which we are faced go far beyond issues of alleged "indecency." For example, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) recently urged its members to adopt a "code of ethics" for students using the Internet, and suggests that students be required to agree to follow the code before being given e-mail addresses. AASCU's recommendation follows an incident at the University of Maryland in which a student posted unsubstantiated hearsay on the Internet about a local woman whom he said had been abusing her high school-aged daughter. The student listed the woman's phone number on this world-wide post, and she subsequently received numerous harrassing calls. AASCU's most recent posting on this subject suggests that colleges, universities and other providers of Internet access could be held harmless for indecent or harrassing posts by students if the network manager can show that the institution has taken good faith, reasonable, effective and appropriate actions under the circumstances to restrict or prevent access to minors to (indecent) communications. It remains unclear, however, how an institution could prove "good faith" in an environment where students have access to many campus computer servers, and where millions of e-mail and other Internet communications by students and faculty are sent daily. AASCU officials also note that the Justice Department will likely develop guidelines for owners and operators of computer servers on what "reasonable and appropriate" measures they can take to avoid transmission or display of indecent content to minors. AASCU plans to further discuss the implications of the Communications Decency Act at a meeting next month of campus governmental relations and communications representatives; NIU will be represented at that meeting. In the meantime, Northern Illinois University will continue to foster and protect academic freedom in teaching, research and creative artistry as strongly as ever. That this will continue is unmistakably guaranteed by the governance standards of the Board of Trustees and the University Constitution. The University has not changed any policy or any operation as a result of this law being passed -- there is still access to the Internet, home pages and the other uses which have been provided to our academic community. Moreover, it is unlikely that reasonable and responsible use of this communications tool will result in adverse consequences for individual members of the university community. University employees are financially protected in the responsible performance of their duties through the newly strengthened Indemnification Policy in our new Board's bylaws. At the same time, we take very seriously any real or potential threats to academic freedom, and will continue to closely monitor developments in this case. Although there are many unanswered questions that we could discuss internally, it is more appropriate for faculty and staff concerns to be communicated to our elected officials in Washington. A list of their names and addresses, including e-mail addresses, is attached. The telecommunications act was several years in the making, received extensive bipartisan support, and was intended to liberate technology and make it work more effectively for all citizens. Unfortunately, as often happens in our legislative process, some unintended provisions made their way into what is otherwise a positive set of reforms. We all have an interest in seeing the goals of the original legislation realized. At the same time, we are appropriately concerned about the imposition of vague, "community-based" decency standards on the normal, scholarly activities of this or any institution of higher learning. _________________________________________________________________ Illinois Senators Carol Moseley-Braun SH-320 Hart Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510-1301 202/224-2854 E-Mail: senator@moseley-braun.senate.gov Paul Simon SD-462 Dirksen Senate Office Building Washington, D.C. 20510-1302 202/224-2152 E-Mail: senator@simon.senate.gov _________________________________________________________________ U.S. Representatives from Northern Illinois Districts Philip M. Crane 233 Cannon House Office Building Washington, D.C. 20515-1308 202/225-3711 J. Dennis Hastert 2453 Rayburn House Office Building Washington, D.C. 20515-1314 202/225-2976 FAX: 202/225-0697 E-Mail: dhastert@hr.house.gov Donald Manzullo 426 Cannon House Office Building Washington, D.C. 20515-1316 202/225-5676 _________________________________________________________________ President John E. La Tourette February 16, 2020