College student wins free-speech spat, but…

News arrived this week via the Electronic Frontier Foundation that Michigan State University had dropped disciplinary action against a student who had been accused of spamming and network abuse because she sent e-mail about a controversial campus matter to 391 faculty members.

That justice prevailed seems obvious from afar, but it had me wondering if the situation would have been far stickier in a slightly different setting. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The university initially argued that the student, Kara Spencer, had violated acceptable-use policy by failing to gain prior permission for her e-mail, which reached about 8 per cent of the MSU faculty (any amount above 30 messages triggered the provision). EFF called that restriction unconstitutional and was preparing to file legal action.

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“We’re pleased that MSU has reversed course and will not only drop the charge against Ms. Spencer, but will reconsider its flawed policies,” EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn said in a press release. “When a school’s anti-spam policy requires students to get approval before they discuss school policy with school officials, it has plainly left the realm of protecting against spam and has violated the Constitution.”

Score one for the First Amendment. However, the thought did occur to me: Would the issue be viewed any differently — by the law or civil libertarians — had this been a private university instead of a state government one? I asked Cohn via e-mail. Her reply: “It would have been a more complicated analysis but I don’t know that it would necessarily have meant that the policy was OK either.”

I agree that the distinction would not make the policy OK — as in reasonable, prudent or fair — but I do believe the legal case would be significantly more difficult if not altogether untenable. (I’m no lawyer; Cohn is, obviously.)

Surely there is little doubt that a private employer can place restrictions on the use of e-mail that would have made Spencer’s 391-piece delivery a violation of company policy subject to disciplinary action.

Now make the jump from private employer to private university: Is it really that much of a leap?

Feel free to discuss.

How many phones do you have?

Slashdot this week was asking in one of its polls: “How many phones do you have? Count wired phone extensions, cell phones, smartphones, and installed VoIP apps on all computers that you use regularly.”

Unscientific, to be sure, but at last look more than 26,000 Slashdotters had answered. I was surprised to find that my total of five phones was above the poll’s most popular answer of two to four (51 per cent). I had figured that the Slashdot crowd would be good for a boatload of phones, but now I’m thinking this probably reflects the number of people rejecting land lines altogether

A colleague saw my Buzzblog post about the poll and offered this personal anecdote: “I slinked into and out of Target last week with a new landline phone. I failed in my bid to have our household go cell-phone only.”

Left unspoken was that he wasn’t the decider.

Nevertheless, I encounter more people all the time who have cut the cord, including my brother and his wife. Twenty-seven percent in the Slashdot poll reported owning only a single phone, presumably the vast majority being of the mobile variety.

As for the one per cent or so who reported having 15 or more phones, only one word comes to mind: fetish.

I’ve always had something of a fetish about answering my e-mail, so don’t be afraid to give me a try. The address is [email protected].

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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