ASU vs. Spam or Free Speech?

ArizonaStateThe gloves are off in a battle for free speech! In this corner, weighing in at 1,000 pounds, is Arizona State University, with a hundred and fifty-six knockouts an undefeated record. In that corner is, tipping the scales at 110 pounds, with an acid stomach and sporting an inhaler. Well, that’s what some people would like you to believe – that poor li’l has been done wrong by ASU, the Earth equivalent of the evil Star Wars Empire. Reality, however, is normally more pragmatic, less myopic, and well… just plain real. So if both sides have a point to make in this debate, the question then becomes: where does free speech stop and spam begin?

When we talk about the evils of spam, it’s easy to get people on board with it because no one’s going to disagree with the simple premise that spam is bad. It’s like getting people to chime in on Mondays, broccoli and every Hollywood sequel ever made outside of The Godfather Part II. Of course they’re going to agree that it’s bad. Evil. Taboo. The enemy. But what if it wasn’t so black and white? What if one person’s spam was another’s panacea? Where do you draw the line? Who draws it? Suddenly, the idea that spam is a cut and dried discussion might fall a little flat, if exactly what spam is becomes a contentious issue.

Case in point: Arizona State University, the hallowed institution located in Phoenix, Arizona, which recently chose to block all incoming emails from the petition website A popular site that’s gained a head of steam recently with the Occupy Wall Street movement,’s mission seems to be to enact social change through online petitions. Apparently, ASU isn’t impressed enough with the site’s mandate to let it slip when email began flooding the institution’s inboxes. According to local newsmagazine, “A statement released by ASU spokeswoman Julie Newberg said ASU began blocking messages from the website in December after discovering it was a source of spam emails.” According to Newberg, “Although the individual who sent the email may not consider himself a spammer, he acquired a significant number of ASU email addresses, which he used to send unsolicited, unwanted email, which is the definition of spam.”

There’s little sense in disagreeing with Ms. Newberg on the definition of spam, but the university’s actions beg the question of whether this action against a seemingly benevolent organization is a breach of free speech. More so, can this action be deemed a form of censorship? Before you weigh in, consider this: “Newberg also said ASU is blocking all outbound connections to the server. ASU routinely blocks servers to reduce risk to students, faculty and staff, Newberg said, but no examples of websites ASU has blocked other than had been provided by Thursday evening.” Newberg goes on to say that “[ASU respects] the rights of all individuals to express their opinions…however, we must reserve the right to protect the use of our limited and valuable network resources for legitimate academic, research and administrative uses.”

Exactly how is a risk to students, faculty and staff is unclear, but even the most closed minded among us must concede that this action by the university goes beyond the realm of simple email spam filtering and begins to trod on the toes of a scorched earth policy. If one petitioning web domain represents a threat to the university’s bandwidth, maybe the ASU Board of Governors should consider blocking Facebook and YouTube while they’re at it. Hey, it’s just a suggestion.

In a bit of an Ah-HAH! Moment, the article divulges a few tidbits that help piece together what may be happening here: “A Tumblr blog post on Dec. 7, 2011, accused ASU of censorship and blocking the freedom of expression of students, staff and faculty. The post read, in part, ‘Not only is this outrageous, but it is a violation of First Amendment rights of both ASU students as well as the rights of’ The Tumblr post claimed ASU blocked because of a petition created by ASU students called ‘Arizona State University: Reduce the costs of education for Arizona State University students.’”

Ah. A petition on reducing costs to students. Is it really conceivable that the institution blocked a single domain because of a petition? It hardly seems likely. Possible, however, is that the university rushed to judgment in declaring a purveyor of spam. What do you think?

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