The CMU BBoard-censorship imbroglio

Carnegie Mellon University stepped in it in a large way recently, when it tried to censor particular Usenet newsgroups, particularly some or all (depending on when you look) of the* hierarchy.

The whole thing started when somebody suggested (almost certainly incorrectly) that CMU might be liable under Pennsylvania anti-obscenity laws if minors were to get ahold of any of the contents of an* newsgroup. CMU's administration apparently panicked and ordered that the newsgroups not be carried on campus. Then they partially relented and reinstated the text groups (e.g.,, but not the images groups. Things are still in a very uncertain state, and CMU's attempt to avoid publicity has backfired in a big way.

For a comprehensive set of documentation describing everything that's happened, check out the CMU Censorship Page. A particuarly-recommended source is the letter from the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] attempting to explain the half-dozen reasons why CMU isn't liable in the first place. (Another fascinating reference, relevant to censorship in general but not CMU in particular, is the File Room Censorship Archive home page, which looks at censorship issues all over the world.)

Reading all of these Web pages, as well as some conversations with colleagues of mine at CMU, inspired me to write a letter to the two most likely suspects in the CMU administration in which I expressed my dismay at the bad precedent CMU might be starting (not to mention their bad judgment). Much to my surprise, my letter prompted a personal response from Irwin Steinberg, their Vice Provost for Education, in which he attempted to have his cake and eat it, too, by claiming that the newsgroups were still available elsewhere on the Internet and thus their action had done nothing. He also sent me a copy of his address to Duke Law School about the issue.

I found his arguments quite unconvincing, and wrote him a response of my own, in which I take him to task on a number of issues. (The draft shown here, so far, is missing some final edits, some rearrangements, and the conclusion; they have not yet made it into the HTML.) One such concerns whether CMU is even going far enough, if people can still access so-called pornographic imagse via CMU equipment---in essence, attempting to force a decision either to uncensor, or drop from the net completely (knowing full well that the latter would be completely unacceptable politically). I also pick apart his address to Duke; for a professor of rhetoric, I'm unimpressed with his argumentative skills. I also provide other sources of information which he may use to educate himself, since he admits in his address that he knows little about the issues involved.

The controversy is still unresolved.

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Lenny Foner
Last modified: Thu May 18 06:57:30 1995