A doctoral candidate in UB's Department of Anthropology struck up an acquaintance on the Internet with a respected archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth.
The story of how this acquaintance between individuals half a world apart resulted in threats of legal action against UB and others and prompted hearings in the West Australian Parliament is a telling example of the power and reach of the Internet, and highlights the differences that exist even among westernized cultures on the issue of free speech.
It also points out the peculiar circumstances in which universities can find themselves when they take up residence on the great information autobahn.
Unlike Internet-related incidents at Cornell, Northwestern, Virginia Technological Institute and Georgia State, to name a few, that were played out in public, UB's controversy proceeded quietly on campus and went unnoticed in the U.S. press. Not so in Australia, where the incident in which UB was involved caused an uproar that still reverberates on the air waves and in editorial pages.
UB web site gains notoriety
Hugh Jarvis, the UB doctoral candidate, was putting together an international on-line directory of anthropologists when he first met David Rindos on the Internet. A Cornell-educated academic who had been recruited to the University of Western Australia (UWA) in 1989, Rindos had offered to pass along his own list of colleagues for Jarvis to include in his directory.
At the time, Rindos also was deeply involved in a nasty and decidedly uncollegial tenure battle pitting the respected academic against the university that once prized him, but denied him tenure. The affair had taken more twists and turns than a surfer on one of Australia's famous breakers. One Australian newspaper termed the case "The Dispute That Split A University."
The charges involved were messy, intensely personal and in some instances, bizarre, including possible undue influence of Australian mining interests on the Archaeology Department. Rindos was fighting the denial of tenure fiercely, and he was not alone. The West Australian Parliament had set up an inquiry into the events surrounding the whole affair.
The beleaguered professor had been discussing his situation on-line with Jarvis back in Buffalo. Convinced that colleagues on the anthropology listserv should know about the treatment a fellow academic was receiving, Jarvis began posting updates on the affair with various discussion groups.
Interest within the on-line academic community was intense. Jarvis decided to create a World Wide Web archive for people who wanted to keep up with developments and learn more about what had come to be known in Australia simply as "The Rindos Affair." Many parties, including Rindos, supplied documents that were in the public domain and Jarvis posted them on his UB website word-for-word.
The Australian press, in its tenacious and enthusiastic coverage of the story, began to refer to documents on the UB website and to provide the site's Internet address.
For UB, that is when the trouble began. The University of Western Australia threatened legal action against UB as the provider of the website, claiming it contained material that defamed certain administrators and faculty, and asked UB to remove the offending material. In addition, according to Jarvis, it wanted UB to point it to every site on the Internet where information from his archives may have migrated. UWA also required its graduate student association to cut its links to the UB website.
The Australian university claimed further that anyone who even referred to the UB web address was guilty of defamation. The university threatened legal action against The Australian and Campus Review, both national newspapers, for printing the web address, and against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for mentioning it on-air.
Its actions set off a new wave of press stories in Australia about the UWA and Internet censorship.
Jane Figgis of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation contacted UB to find out if the University of Western Australia actually was suing UB, as it was claiming. "If they have not, but keep telling us they have," she stated in a fax to UB News Services, "it smacks a bit of intimidation."
UB officials confirmed that letters had been exchanged, but that no legal proceedings had been initiated. Meanwhile, the matter was referred to Carolyn J. Pasley, associate counsel for the SUNY Office of the University Counsel in Albany.
Experts in the U.S. who follow Internet law saw little potential for lawsuits in the case.
"Without presuming to know anything about the law of Western Australia," said Eric M. Freeman of Hofstra Law School, "I can state with some certainty that I have never heard of an English-speaking jurisdiction-and I seriously doubt that one exists -in which if I say 'There is a full discussion of this subject in [a particular book],' I thereby become liable for whatever libel [that book] contains."
Declan McCullagh, who runs the Justice on Campus Project at M.I.T., a free speech watchdog group, flatly called the lawsuit threat 'bull(...).'
Jarvis, meanwhile, had not been contacted by the University of Western Australia, but he knew what was going on through discussions with SUNY lawyers. Although his sympathies were obvious from the tone of the website, Jarvis said he considered himself an information handler, not a protagonist.
Shortly after learning of the legal threats against UB, Jarvis contacted UWA directly last May and offered to work with them, if they would tell him what they found to be defamatory. He received a two-sentence reply a month later stating the matter was in the hands of lawyers for UB and the university.
"I was upset that UWA had refused to even try to work with me on the archive or updates, and then was going over my head while never bothering to make any real effort to communicate with me," he said recently. "I was also rather surprised to hear that they felt documents which almost exclusively came from their own files were considered defamatory and actionable against me.
"So it was obvious to me that they didn't really care about the site at all. They just wanted to score some points in the media."
Pasley wrote to UWA, telling it, in effect, that UB doesn't control the content of websites, and that since Jarvis was willing to work with the university, it should address its concerns to him directly as site manager.
"We believe this provides a practical and simple solution to the issues you have raised and that it is neither necessary nor appropriate for the University to act as an intermediary in this matter," she said in her letter of July 3, 1996, to the University of Western Australia's lawyers in Perth.
David Rindos died in his sleep of a heart attack on Dec. 10, 1996, at the age of 49. He was still fighting UWA's denial of tenure at the time of his death.
Neither Jarvis nor Pasley has heard from the University of Western Australia since. The matter is still quite alive in Western Australia, however. Parliament is scheduled to resume its investigation of the affair in March, and Jarvis continues to post updates on UB's website.
The incident has prompted SUNY to speed up development of a model computer-use policy that was already underway at the time. The policy is currently in draft form and is being reviewed by the various campuses.
For its part, UB has had a "conditions of use" policy in place for a decade, said Richard Lesniak, director of academic services for UB's University Computing Center. The policy addresses behavior, not content, he said, and is updated as changing technology dictates.
"Our statement is not unnecessarily broad. It doesn't really deal with any major first amendment issues. We steer clear of that: We do not in any way censure. To do otherwise would be insane."
The policy, which can be found on the "UB Wings" website, stipulates that all persons must use UB's computer services in an effective, efficient, ethical and legal manner, "consistent with the instructional, research and administrative goals of the university." The guidelines prohibit certain practices, including "spamming"-sending a message to a universe of news groups-generating chain mail and printing unnecessary listings.
Content is not an issue unless it breaks the law, Lesniak said, and harassment complaints are pursued only if a person presses charges.
While civil libertarians are most comfortable with a completely free expression of ideas on the Internet, permitting this "anarchic discourse in cyberspace," as Karen Frank of the Practising Law Institute in New York City terms it, isn't always practical for universities, Lesniak noted.
"People often rail about First Amendment rights," Lesniak said, "but this is a university populated in part by students who don't always act as adults. The university does have to assume the in loco parentis role on occasion. They sometimes have to deal with incidents in tune with their own governance."
Meanwhile, the question of who, if anyone, will govern the Internet, is the subject of animated discussion in governmental commissions, think tanks and talk shows; on newspaper editorial pages, and around dinner tables across the nation. Questions about the responsibility and liability of providers of Internet access are equally perplexing.
Writes Frank, of the Practising Law Institute: "...the Internet is largely terra incognita. There are very few decisions (and even fewer reported cases) from which to determine how traditional concepts and rules will be applied to this new medium. The uploading of materials by a single user, and the posting of that material to the Internet, can raise a variety of liability issues...for all Internet users."
Until there are answers to these thorny questions, it's every university for itself.
PHOTO BY DON HEUPEL
ILLUSTRATION BY TODD RELYEA