censorship of bbs (133)

Thu, 2 Mar 89 20:22:40 EST

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 670. Thursday, 2 Mar 1989.

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 89 23:43 EDT
From: Joe Giampapa <GIAMPAPA@brandeis.bitnet>
Subject: censorship of bulletin boards

[The following newspaper article has passed through several hands,
the messy record of which I have deleted. As many of you will know,
Humanist has itself struggled with the issues of selective publication,
which some insist on calling censorship, and which still others applaud
as censorship. My own view as editor is that Humanist has a wide but
limited focus. Some subjects are relevant, others not.
A remarkable thing about it is the extent to which self-regulation
(the only kind worthy of human beings) has worked. Recent events
remind us of how valuable our liberal traditions really are,
how much our study of the humanities depend on them, indeed how
much the very idea of electronic networks stems from them. At the same
time, conditions may require than a line be drawn, as I found I had
to do with the text below, which repeated a joke that caused offense,
ostensibly as an example of what gets people upset. I didn't think
an example was required!

No sermon intended (for which I'm not qualified), just background
for those who have joined recently, and an expression of interest
in Joe Giampapa's contribution. --W.M.]

This is from the February 20, 1989, San Jose Mercury News:

Computer users worry that Stanford set precedent

They say decision to block bulletin board
impedes free acces to public information.

By Tom Philp

Computer scientists at Stanford fear the university has entered a never-ending
role as a moral regulator of computer bulletin boards by recently blocking
access to a list of jokes deemed to serve no "university educational purpose."
Many computer users on campus consider bulletin boards to be the libraries of
the future - and thus subject to the same free access as Stanford's library
system. Instead, Stanford apparently has become the nation's first university
to block access to part of the international bulletin network called Usenet,
which reaches 250,000 users of computers running the Unix operating system,
according to a computer scientist who helped create the network.

To some computer users, Stanford's precedent is troubling. "We get into some
very, very touchy issues when system administrators are given the authority to
simply get rid of files that they deem inappropriate on publicly available
systems," said Gary Chapman, executive director of Computer Professionals for
Social Responsibility, a Palo Alto-based organization with 2,500 members. "My
personal view is that freedom of speech should apply to computer information."

Ralph Gorin, director of Academic Information Resources at Stanford, disagrees.
"I think that it's very clear that one should be either in favor of free speech
and all of the ramifications of that or be willing to take the consequences of
saying free speech sometimes, and then having to decide when," Gorin said.

Since the jokes ban, more than 100 Stanford computer users, including a leading
researcher in artificial intelligence, have signed a protest petition. And
there is some evidence to indicate Stanford officials are looking for a way out
of the dilemma they have created.

The joke bulletin board, called "rec.humor.funny," is one of several bulletin
boards that discuss controversial topics. Stanford, for example, continues to
permit access to bulletin boards that allow students to discuss their use of
illegal drugs, sexual techniques and tips on nude beaches. Gorin said he is
unaware of those bulletin boards.

The jokes bulletin board came to Stanford officials' attention in December,
after a report about it in a Canadian newspaper. The jokes hit a raw nerve
with campus officials, who have been plagued by a variety of racist incidents
on campus. And so they decided on Jan. 25 to block the jokes from passing
through the university's main computer. "At a time when the university is
devoting considerable energy to suppress racism, bigotry and other forms of
prejudice, why devote computer resources to let some outside person exploit
these?" Gorin explained.

The joke that sparked the complaints is this ...[text deleted for reasons
that would be obvious if it hadn't been --W.M.]
....Most of the jokes are not racist or sexist, Gorin
said; they are just plain silly or political. An example: "What did Mickey
Mouse get for Christmas? A Dan Quayle watch."

But Stanford officials were troubled because the jokes bulletin board is
"moderated," meaning that one person controls everything that it publishes.
The jokes bulletin board "does not in itself provide for discussion of the
issues that it raises," Gorin said. The moderator, Brad Templeton of Waterloo,
in the Canadian province of Ontario, publishes only jokes. Comments he
receives go on a separate bulletin board, called "rec.humor.d." For Stanford,
the existence of a comment bulletin board is not enough because people who call
up the jokes will not necessarily see the comments.

The problem with "unmoderated" bulletin boards is clutter, according to Eugene
Spafford, a computer scientist at Purdue University who is one of the pioneers
of Usenet. The network accumulates the equivalent of 4,000 double-spaced,
typewritten pages every day, far too many comments for any person to read.
"People who use a network as an information resource like a more focused
approach," Spafford said. They is why another, unmoderated, bulletin board
that has many comments and fewer - but equally offensive - jokes, is far less
popular. Stanford does not block transmission of that bulletin board.
Templeton's bulletin board is the most popular of the 500 on Usenet. An
estimated 20,000 computer users pull up the jokes on their screens every day,
Spafford said.

Usenet has its own form of democracy, calling elections to determine whether a
new bulletin board should be created, and who - if anyone - should moderate it.
Templeton's jokes bulletin board was created by such a vote. Stanford's
decision to block access to it "strikes me as hypocritical," Spafford said.
"At best, it's someone who doesn't understand the situation who is trying to do
something politically correct."

John McCarthy, a Stanford computer science professor and one of the founders of
the field of artificial intelligence, has met with university President Donald
Kennedy to discuss his opposition to blocking the jokes. "No one of these
(bulletin boards) is especially important," McCarthy said. The point is that
regulating access to them "is not a business that a university should go into."

Since deciding to block access to the bulletin board, the administration has
referred the issue to the steering committee of Stanford's Faculty Senate. The
future of the bulletin board may end up in the hands of the professors. "I
think that is an entirely appropriate internal process for reaching that
decision," Gorin said.

Added McCarthy: "I should say that I am optimistic now that this ban will be
corrected. There are some people who think they made a mistake." ...