Electronic Communications Policy still in working stage
Chief Privacy and Security Officer Mike Corn said officials continue to address concerns that the proposed campus Electronics Communications Policy will have adverse effects on freely expressed academic speech.
Corn said officials have taken seriously points brought up in a Sept. 9 letter to the university outlining several areas of contention with the new policy.
The letter, from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the American Association of University Professors, claimed portions of the new policy would have chilling effects on free speech and “restrict First Amendment rights and academic freedom of students and faculty in a number of serious ways.”
“We are looking through it again very closely because that certainly wasn’t the intent,” Corn said. “We as a university want our faculty engaged in public debate. That’s what public intellectuals do. If we need to fine-tune (the policy) to make it more obvious, then that’s what we’ll do.”
He said high-level administrators and the original policy team had been consulted since receipt of the FIRE/AAUP letter, but so far they’ve identified nothing threatening free speech as claimed.
“We think it actually creates greater degrees of freedom for faculty,” he said. “There are explicit exemptions and protections in the new policy that don’t exist in our current policy framework. Further, existing policy provides very specific procedural protections that prevent the kind of monitoring they’re talking about.”
But that doesn’t mean the proposed policy can’t be improved, as it has been through recommendations made at various stages of the months-long process presenting it before several Senate subcommittees, and most recently at the Aug. 29 Senate Executive Committee
No major issues were raised at that meeting, but when the item was removed from the SEC’s September meeting agenda officials expressed hope that the policy questions posed by FIRE/AAUP would successfully be resolved.
Bob Easter, who was at that time interim chancellor and vice president, said formulating the policy was a challenging exercise because of the difficulty in finding the appropriate balance between protection and openness.
“It’s going to be tricky,” he said. “We’re in a hard place between state ethics law and the value we place on academic freedom and free speech.”
SEC Chair Matt Wheeler said he was confident officials would find that balance.
“They’re working on it,” Wheeler said. “Hopefully we’ll see a new version that we can send on.”
Corn said much of the policy derives from existing policy (such as the University Rules and Statutes and the campus Appropriate Use Policy), though there currently is no formal policy specifically addressing email use on campus.
“A lot of this is stuff we already do but no one has codified,” he said. “There was a consensus that something needed to be developed.”
He said the extensive construction and review of the new policy was designed to ensure greater protection of student information, and to help guide and protect faculty members during the ordinary use of email and similar mediums.
Corn said possibly the most contentious portions of the policy pertain to the use of university resources for political campaigning, though the passage was not created by the university but modeled on the state’s Illinois Ethics Act.
FIRE and AAUP contend in their letter that despite the attempted protections, some areas have been constructed so broadly that they become vague – thus open to unpredicted interpretation or abuse.
“A regulation is said to be unconstitutionally vague when it does not ‘give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly,’ ” the letter said, quoting the wording of a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Corn said it’s necessary some portions of the policy be written broadly to prevent the kind of pre-emptive prodding and parsing that prohibit academic and research progress.
In other words, in the case of such a comprehensive, sweeping policy, sometimes simpler is best.
“We have a lot of protections in place, but maybe they’re right that we need to be hyper-cautious about a few of these things, particularly regarding free speech,” he said.
Regardless of the wording of the final version, Corn said the way in which the university approaches the investigative process of any alleged infractions will not change.
“For one thing, in practice we act on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Nobody is monitoring speech and nobody is looking over anyone’s shoulder for violations. We’re not proactively looking at content. We only act when there’s a complaint.”
He said Section 19.3 of the proposed policy is a good example of the broad-construction concept, since it gives discretion to faculty members in using all varieties of communications platforms – as long as it doesn’t involve student correspondence, which is required to be conducted through a university email account unless it is student-initiated.
“We need to rely a great deal on faculty to use their skills, their judgment and their intellect when it comes to communications,” Corn said. “We imbed enormous trust in them and their good judgment is something we should rely on. The policy provides a lot of guidance. There is freedom despite legal obligations.”
Regardless, he said, when brought to their attention, campus’ security personnel focus their efforts on egregious rules violations and serious ethical breaches.
“You can’t run a major print campaign for your personal political campaign and you can’t run a business from your office computer,” he said.
Corn’s goal is to have a finalized version of the policy before the Senate for consideration before the UC @ Illinois deadline next year – sooner if possible. But he said getting the policy right is tantamount.
“We want to sit down and look at this again very seriously,” he said. “This is a big policy and there’s always work to be done. I think the faculty has been very reasonable; they’re just looking for clarity. It would be helpful to get this done ahead of (the UC @ Illinois deadline), but I’m not worrying about a timeline. It would be an inconvenience but not a show-stopper. Getting the policy right is what is important.”