Proposed UI email policy put on hold

URBANA — A policy governing emails and other electronic communication at the University of Illinois has been put on hold after educational groups raised free-speech concerns about it.

The campus senate was scheduled to discuss the policy Monday afternoon, but the item was pulled from the agenda.

On Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors wrote to the interim Chancellor Robert Easter to express "deep concerns" about the proposed policy, saying it would restrict the First Amendment rights and academic freedom of students and faculty.

"We believe this warrants more serious consideration by senate committees, the Senate Executive Committee and the chancellor's office," Professor Matthew Wheeler, chairman of the Senate Executive Committee, said Monday.

That will "give us time to sit down and review the letter in detail," agreed Michael Corn, chief privacy and security officer for the university.

The measure is an attempt to create a comprehensive electronic communications policy at the university, pulling together several "disparate computing policies in various stages of being out of date," campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.

But a clause designed to ensure compliance with the state's ethics act, which forbids the use of state property for political campaigning, raised concerns from Cary Nelson, a UI professor emeritus and president of the AAUP, and Azhar Majeed of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Their letter said the policy's prohibition on using email and other communications for "political campaigning" would deprive students and faculty of the right to engage in a range of "constitutionally protected political speech and activity."

As a public university, the UI can't place that kind of restriction on political speech, which was the impetus for the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee, the letter argued.

The policy fails to provide a definition for what constitutes political campaigning, giving administrators "unchecked discretion" in enforcing it, the authors said. They referred to a 2008 incident in which UI employees were told not to wear pins or T-shirts in support of a political candidate or party because of the university's obligation not to endorse candidates. Then-President B. Joseph White later rescinded the policy after the AAUP raised free-speech concerns.

Corn said Monday that he appreciates the sensitivity to the issue, saying the UI "strongly, strongly, strongly supports free speech. We work in an environment where our goal is to facilitate the exchange of information, not throttle it."

But he added, "We can't pass a policy that says you can violate state law.

"I am a university employee. I can't run for mayor and print letterhead in my office. I can't use the university to put up a website to support my campaign," he said.

"It in no way prohibits the free exchange of ideas and information. That's all that clause does. It doesn't create any policy. It simply references the fact that we work as state employees using state resources and are beholden to state law."

The proposed policy also bans electronic communications that "interfere with the mission of the University," as well as "uses that violate other existing University and campus policies." The letter said the policy is too ambiguous.

"If the university decides that faculty expression about union activities, for example, interferes with its mission, this determination alone would be sufficient grounds to prohibit and sanction the expression," the letter said.

Nelson and Majeed regard some existing UI policies as unconstitutional because they ban "acts of intolerance" or "offensive" speech, and fear the new policy would broaden those restrictions.

They also called a requirement for preapproval to send unsolicited emails to more than 100 recipients "onerous." Students and faculty should have the right to alert the campus to urgent issues, such as a threat of violence or important policy change, they said.

Corn said the section is designed to prevent an individual from "spamming" members of the UI community with unsolicited messages and "avoid diluting the communications value of official communications streams." It merely codifies an existing practice for campus mass emails, he said.

Nelson and Majeed said a better approach would be to take action against an individual who abuses email.

Corn said he's hopeful the issues can be addressed as the policy is further reviewed.

"Technology is evolving and changing faster than anyone can possibly keep up with it," Corn said. "Policy by definition moves slowly."

Corn said the policy had been vetted by three committees in the campus senate, which includes faculty, students and academic professionals.

"The last thing we want to do is violate anyone's right to free speech," interim Chancellor Robert Easter said Monday.

Comments

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Sid Saltfork wrote on September 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm

How about the faculty, and staff using the employer's computer which was purchased with tax payers money for only work related activities? If other activities warrant the use; the faculty, and staff should use their own computers when they are not at work. Every other state employee follows the rules regarding state issued computers. Remember the antics of a professor engaged in the furor over the Chief? Freedom of speech does not mean using the employer's computer during working hours for non-work related activities. This is not about students. It is about faculty. How about just following the rules that every other state employee follows?

Illiniwek22 wrote on September 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Actually, it DOES apply to students. Read the policy.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Where are the angry, demonstrating students? It's always the faculty who cry foul. If some compromise for the students is worked out, fine. However; the faculty, and the staff are paid by the State of Illinois. They should abide by the rules for state employees. They are employees. We have seen in the past the problems caused by those faculty who disregard their employment responsibility to support their personal causes. They are paid to work. They can express their own views on their own time with their own computers.

Illiniwek22 wrote on September 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

"If some compromise for the students is worked out, fine?"

You seem to have a callous disregard for the First Amendment. And a strange axe to grind on this issue.

Molly1 wrote on September 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm

I am personally happy that they are taking the time to be certain that this new policy is right, and does not trample on people's rights. Yes the argument could be made that the equipment belongs to the University, and such activities should be forbidden, but as a former U of I employee, I understand that people eat their lunch near the computer or take breaks and are allowed a little bit of freedom in using a computer system for personal activities. If only using the computer to read personal email or go to a few websites, the cost is near zero. The computer would be on anyway during breaks, so there is no additional electric costs. The small amount of additional wear and tear on a keyboard, mouse, or server equipment is also near zero. Now if an individual starts printing out personal items, then costs are incurred for toner, paper, etc.

It is much better to allow a little personal freedom than to take it away.

I was an employee during 9/11. I remember in the days following, that the University came out with a policy that said that employees could not place American flags in their work areas or windows, for fear of hurting the feelings of foriegn students. This was a huge problem for many. The students typically love America as well. Why would someone who hates America and her symbols, come to school here for four years?

All foreign students that I spoke with did not take issue with 'flying' the American flag over American ground.

It was just someone taking a break from their Cat-I misbehaviors to get overly Politically Correct with not enough thought placed into before hand.

Take your time, find a happy medium that works for the students, faculty, staff, and the tax paying public. If it has waited this long, email has been around for over 25 years, it can wait a little longer for the correct course of action to be taken.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Molly, sorry to break it to you; but the university employees are the only state employees who have been illegally exempt from the state's rules. Personal e-mails, non work related websites, and surfing the web have been verboten for years both in state employment, and private employment. Simply because the university has ignored it does not change the policy. The technology is for work. You make a good argument about breaks, and lunch hours; but we both know that it is not solely limited to those times. We both know that people look at wild horse websites, the Humane Society website, sports websites, and some others that are not acceptable to put into print. Hey, it's the rules. There is no excuse for not following them. If the public were allowed to take unannounced tours on campus, it would be an eye opener. Office hours, verifiable working hours, "working from home", travel, etc.... would bring howls from the taxpayers. Why not just do the right thing?

Molly1 wrote on September 13, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Really, I have worked for the county, state, and federal government, and a little email activity has been allowed by all of them. They prevent you from going to sites that are inappropriate, like porn sites, hacking sites, or places where you can get illegitimate copies of software or music, and they also block you from sites that hog bandwidth, like radio stations, youtube, or facebook, but they all allow it. With one caveat essentially, that if you do something inappropriate, we have a complete record of your actions, and we will fire or prosecute you for your offenses.

I know that some people will abuse freedoms, that is an unfortunate part of life. But IT professionals are getting better at things as well. I understand from someone that works at a hospital in the area, that they are allowed to access facebook twice a day, and there is a little timer that counts down from 15 minutes each time. Technologies such as that, allow for the best of both worlds.

And yeah, people have hobbies. If they want to look at horse sites, sports sites, ham radio sites, news sites, what would be the problem? Like I mentioned the cost is almost nil for accessing the internet. As long as someone is not violation copyright laws with music or video on government hardware, looking at porn, or working a second job via their university equipment, what really is the harm?

The biggest issue is people goofing off all day, and not getting their work done. I suppose that there should be ways around that too. Have software monitor time spent on a domain name per IP address. If any IP is on non-work related sites for more than 1.5 hours per day, have the users name come up on a report for a human inspection of their internet usage. Now obviously some sites like UPS, Amazon, or U of I sports pages might be a little hard to work with, since the time spent there 'could' be work related or not. If someone abuses the system they get warned. Abuse again, they get usage suspended for a month. Abuse again, they get canned. Should be fairly simple to implement, and the fear of losing one's job would be incentive enough to not break the policy.

Will someone still figure out a way to abuse the system? Sure, look at how many people never work, but yet collect unemployment and / or welfare their entire lives.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 14, 2011 at 8:09 am

There are already disciplinary rules in place. There are filters in place. Everything is already in place. It has been for years. Now, the university is being called on the carpet for not following the rules that the employer, the State of Illinois, has in place. Personal e-mail, hobbies, etc..... are to be done on the employee's time off work; not on work. Only a few minutes to look at a favorite, personal website becomes an hour. What is the problem with working on the job? Taxpayers fund the work. They pay for the computers. They pay for the IT time. Why not just be a good citizen, and a good employee by following the simple rules. No personal use of employer computers during work hours. University faculty, and staff are not exempt no matter how much they complain. Sorry about your attitude of those who "never work, but yet collect unemployment and / or welfare their entire lives". Be happy that you have a job. Those people who are paid to work should work for their pay.

Molly1 wrote on September 14, 2011 at 10:09 am

Sid, Sid, Sid,

Hey I don't disagree with you!

I am not saying that people should go get paid to goof off. I have seen way too many co-workers in the past or present do this. I was simply saying that technology can be used to keep those things in check, and if an employee is able to take a quick mental break doing something that they like to do, efficiency of the employee improves. This has been proven in many countries from Asia to Europe to South America.

Having a complete dictatorship, not allowing employees to take quick mental breaks, costs the efficiency of the unit later.

I am simply saying that this is a cheap, effective method of allowing that to happen. Would you rather have an employee quietly check their personal email / website at work, or have them go out and smoke, grab an alcoholic drink, travel to a restaurant and return late, or spray paint graffiti on the lawn of the quad? All in all, a person checking an email is pretty small potatoes. The health insurance companies are frowning on smoking, obviously a smart manager doesn't want a tipsy employee, or a tardy employee that is going to cause every employee scheduled for breaks after the tardy individual to go late.

This is something quiet that can be down on the premisis, can be controlled via software, and costs the university next to nothing.

I'm sorry that you didn't get my point about people abusing a system. My point was that every system, no matter how good, has problems. People will find those problems and exploit them.

Of course I want an employee, federally, state, or private company employee to do the work that they are getting paid for. If not, then the taxes, and the costs for services and goods goes up.

John O'Connor wrote on September 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Faculty and grad students do not work on the clock from 9-5 M-F. Not too long ago, another tea partyite with an anti faculty, anti intellectual axe to grind was outraged -- outraged -- to see a professor mowing her lawn at 10am on a weekday morning. Deciding when a prof or a grad is 'on the clock' and when they are 'off the cock' is not as black and white as some seem to want to think. But of course, some people will not be happy until all education is privatized and, as a society, we abandon the idea of public education.

Luckily, more and more people see their agenda more clearly and are turning away from it. From the double taxation social club in SW Champaign to the 'let him die' moment in the last Republican debate, people are seeing what this attitude will get us.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 14, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Oh my, John.... We were talking about employees use of their employer's computer during working hours. Do you feel the academic freedom to use your employer's computer for your own use? I don't know anything about a "double taxation social club in SW Champaign". Where do they meet? I was appalled also with the crowd response during the debate. I am not by anyway associated with the Tea Party movement. You seem to make quite a few jumps from the employee use of their employer's (State of Illinois, taxpayer funded) computer. It would be nice to see the university mowing it's yard though. Of course, there are not many civil service workers to mow it anymore. When the students are gone, the place looks like an inactive military post. Sooner, or later some student is going to complain about the ragweed, or some allergic plant. A height-challenged student might even get lost. It hides critters like mice, rats, and snakes. It does save money for attracting faculty, and administrators though. Are you "working from home" today; or are you using your employer's computer?

John O'Connor wrote on September 14, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Thanks for warning us all of the rampant snake problem on campus. The animosity in your response, while not unexpected, does nicely highlight your bizarre beef with faculty and grads at public universities. I'm sorry you did not find enjoyment in your career. Further discussion of this topic with you will clearly be pointless.

While you continually protest that you are not a tea partyite, you certainly seem to align with them.

And my schedule today is none of your business.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 14, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Gee, John.................. What are you going to call me next? A Nazi, a Communist, a Liberal, or whatever disagrees with you? I have no "beef" with faculty, and staff who work. I do have a "beef" with academic elitists. I do have a "beef" with financial waste at the taxpayers expense. I did enjoy my career. It was rewarding. It taught me to work with others. It taught me that every employee has value. It taught me to be responsible with other people's money. The two academics that I respected the most were one who earned his G.E.D. while serving in the U. S. Marine Corp, and went on to earn a Ph.D.; and the other who was a coal miner's son, and went on to earn a Ph.D. Both men are intelligent, and open to ideas from others without Ph.D.s. They possess both common sense, and intelligence. They both worked hard in their jobs. I never saw them mowing their yards while "working from home". Again, the topic is regarding the employee's use of their employer's (State of Illinois, taxpayer funded) computer for their personal use. The state (your employer), and private employers do not allow it. It has been supported in the courts. Why are you specifically upset about following the policy?

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 14, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Read the Auditor General's report regarding Financial Audit Ending June, 2010; and released on January 12, 2011. You can access it on the State of Illinois website. It's about financial waste. It has nothing to do with a threat to intellectual freedom. Yes, it may mean that employees can no longer use their employer's computer for their own use. Yes, it may mean that some employees have their e-mails read due to a filter. Just make sure to spell "six" correctly.

Feltrino wrote on September 14, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Exactly how is a State employee's speech being abridged by this policy? Stand on your front porch and espouse whatever you want. Grab your smartphone and fire off whatever you feel the world needs to hear. The First Amendment does not preserve your right to use others' property to express yourself. If it did, we could alll spray paint our opinions all of University buildings.

Sid Saltfork wrote on September 15, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Thank you, Feltrino.