It appears at least one American university has studied Hosni Mubarak’s approach to dealing with online dissent.
Arizona State University has blocked campus-wide access to popular petition-hosting website Change.org.
The university claims the decision was made after the site was identified as a source of spam, but irate students and free speech advocates suggest the action followed officials’ discovery of a petition requesting lower ASU tuition.
“We have confirmed reports that Arizona State University blocked access to the Change.org website,” said Ben Rattray, CEO of Change.org, in a statement provided to The Daily Caller.
“Change.org provides a valuable platform for people across the world who want to take action on issues they care about, and it’s a shame that ASU intentionally denied students that service,” said Rattray.
“The only other places we’re blocked are China and Iran, and the fact that ASU stooped to this level is pretty shocking,” he added.
A Tumblr blog expressing outrage at the action accuses the university of engaging in shameless censorship, with several commenters expressing disbelief in the school’s official explanation.
“Clearly, ASU does not want its students, faculty, or employees signing this petition,” says the blog, “and has resorted to BLATANT and UNLAWFUL Censorship in order to block the freedom of expression of its students and faculty.”
University officials defended the action as necessary to ensure that campus servers are only utilized for scholarly pursuits.
“We respect the rights of all individuals to express their opinions,” school officials told The State Press. “However, we must reserve the right to protect the use of our limited and valuable network resources for legitimate academic research and administrative uses.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a prominent advocate for free speech on college campuses, issued a letter to ASU President Michael Crow Friday evening, describing the action as “wholly inconsistent with ASU’s obligations as a university legally and morally bound by the First Amendment.”
The letter, acquired by TheDC, says that “the timing of ASU’s actions in this case has created the unmistakable impression that ASU has used its spam policy as a pretext to deny access to a petition because of content that is critical of the university and its administration.”
“Even if ASU does have a legitimate interest in blocking ‘spam’ emails originating from Change.org, there is no reason that this would involve blocking access to the website for users of ASU’s network,” says the letter.
ASU officials did not immediately respond to TheDC’s request for comment. The university has approximately 72,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff members.
Update (Feb. 4):
Following public outrage, ASU has capitulated and reversed its decision to block campus-wide access to Change.org.
Sharon Keeler, the university’s director of media relations, informed TheDC:
“The university acknowledges and understands the expression of concern from some members of the community who desire access to change.org from university computing resources. In order to seek a balance between those concerns and protecting the university computing environment, the university has removed the restriction against site access from university computing resources.”