Attempt at Censorship of Electronic Libraries at Stanford University in 1989

by John McCarthy, Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University

Here is the sequence of events in the rhf flap at Stanford.

1. Brad Templeton, who operated Looking Glass Software in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, finds the unmoderated Usenet newsgroup rec.humor too raunchy (or perhaps just not funny) and establishes a competing moderated rec.humor.funny, abbreviated rhf. This was probably in 1988. His policy is to encrypt (using rot13) ethnic jokes and jokes about sex so that any reader who finds such jokes offensive need not decrypt them. In an unmoderated newsgroup, all submissions are automatically included. Moderated groups have editors who select what is included.

2. A civil engineering graduate student Jonathan Richmond at M.I.T. in late 1988 finds a joke in rhf racist and attacks Templeton. The joke was:

"A Jew and a Scotsman have dinner. At the end of the dinner the Scotsman is heard to say, 'I'll pay.' The newspaper headline next morning says, 'Jewish ventriloquist found dead in alley.' "
(Templeton later remarked that this was a joke he would have encrypted, but he forgot.)

3. Richmond gets no satisfaction or sympathy from Templeton, from the gods of the Usenet or from his fellow Jews. Israelis say, "What kind of a Jew are you to get excited about that?" Scots don't object either.

4. JEDR had more luck in Waterloo. A newspaper reporter Louisa D'Amato and a columnist Frank Etherington of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record succeed in raising a flap at the University of Waterloo. Politicians get in the act, attacking racism. The University President Douglas Wright and Associate Provost J. Alan George (a Stanford computer science PhD) ban rhf and ban its distribution via University computer system.

5. Compromise in Waterloo. University gets only G-rated jokes, and Templeton finds another Usenet distribution point.

6. June Genis of the Stanford Data Center mentions the flap to John Sack, Director of the Stanford Data Center in December 1988 or January 1989.

7. Stanford Administration secretly gurgles for two months, when Vice-President for Information Resources Robert Street makes two underlings, Ralph Gorin and John Sack, ban the file and take responsibility. The President of the University is involved in the censorship decision, because the matter was taken up in a University administrative group.

8. I hear about it from a graduate student whose advice was solicited about how to delete exactly one newsgroup and organize an email petition. It gets about 100 electronic signatures including June Genis, who had mentioned the matter in the first place. The Computer Science Department faculty unanimously opposes the ban at Academic Information Resources and the Stanford Data Center and continues rhf on Deparmental computers. The computer science students also vote to oppose it.

9. Bay Area newspapers write stories and a few editorials unsympathetic to the ban even though some of the initial stories babble about 3,000 racist jokes.

Remark: This is in contrast to Canada. I think that lack of a formal Bill of Rights there makes officials less inhibited about banning forms of expression. American officials are inhibited by the tradition of the First Amendment, even when they are not legally bound by it. American newspapers are also more inclined to be absolutist about freedom of expression. 2002 note: Canada has a "Charter of Rights and Freedoms" dating from 1982, but for various reasons it has less effective force.

10. President Donald Kennedy of Stanford refers issue to Academic Senate. When I visit him to complain, he suggests that the Steering Committee of the Senate will refer the matter to a committee for a recommendation, e.g. the Committee on Research. I don't think newsgroups were a matter of research and don't like the fact that Street is an ex-officio member of that committee. It occurred to me that the Committee on Libraries would be more appropriate, since the traditions of freedom of speech and press apply as much to electronic media as to print media.

11. The Academic Senate Steering Committee asks its Committee on Libraries for a recommendation. This choice of committe plays a key role.

12. The Committee on Libraries says that electronic media shouldn't be treated differently from print media, and the policy is universality tempered only by cost. Here is their statement.

Office Memo, Stanford University Libraries date: April 12, 1989 To: The Steering Committee of the Academic Senate via Arthur Coladarci From: Joan Krasner, Secretary, C-Lib The following is an excerpt from the minutes of the April 10th meeting of C-Lib which considered the matter of computer bulletin boards on campus. The Preamble to the Statement on Academic Freedom (1974) states that ``Expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion.'' It is the view of the Academic Council Committee on Libraries that this statement pertains to materials received on computer bulletin boards on campus. Acquisition and access to information in new forms should be subject only to financial limits and other standard criteria of collection such as the useful life of the materials, storage capacity, etc. - approved by Academic Council Commmittee on Libraries, April 10, 1989. XC: Gerald Gillespie [chairman of C-Lib]

13. The Steering Committee of the Senate asks Street if he wants to back down or have the issue debated in the Senate.

14. Street and Kennedy back down and restore rhf with grumpy remarks about the Committee on Libraries not considering all the issues and expressing abhorrence of racism.

15. No further flap on this issue at Stanford up to 1993 June.

1996 note: I have recently heard a different story about the origin of the flap at Stanford. If anyone has corrections to this article, please email me.

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