The Catholic University of America
Of Counsel - A Bulletin on Legal Issues at CUA - August 1999

Cyberspace

Introduction

The Internet is a powerful and revolutionary tool for communication. The Internet is powerful in its ability to reach a global audience and revolutionary in its accessibility to those who formerly were only at the receiving end of mass communications. With access to the Internet, anyone - even a preschool child - can now effectively be an international publisher and broadcaster. By posting materials on the Web, for example, an Internet user can speak to a larger and wider audience than The New York Times, NBC, or National Public Radio. Many Internet users, however, do not realize that is what they are doing.

Given these facts, the Internet also has a powerful and revolutionary potential for misuse. The possibility for such misuse exists on college and university campuses, where free access to computing resources can be mistaken as the equivalent of free speech, and where free speech rights can be, in turn, mistaken to include the right to do whatever is technologically possible.

The rights of academic freedom and freedom of expression do apply to the use of university computing resources to the extent identified in CUA's internal policies. However, the responsibilities and limitations associated with those rights are also applicable. See, for example, the Student Handbook sections on the "Standard of Student Conduct" and "Guidelines on Freedom of Expression and Dissent."

Thus, legitimate use of university computing resources does not extend to whatever is technologically possible.

In addition, while some restrictions are built into the university's computer operating systems and networks, those restrictions are not the only restrictions on what is permissible.

Users of university computing resources must abide by all applicable restrictions, whether or not they are built into the operating system or network and whether or not they can be circumvented by technical means.

Moreover, it is not the responsibility of the university to prevent computer users from exceeding those restrictions; rather, it is the computer user's responsibility to know and comply with them.

When you are pulled over to the side of the Information Superhighway, saying "I'm sorry officer; I didn't realize I was over the speed limit" is not a valid defense.

So, what are the applicable restrictions? The same laws and policies that apply in every other context, apply to the Internet. "Cyberspace" is not a separate legal jurisdiction, and it is not exempt from the requirements of legal and ethical behavior within the university community.

Conduct that is illegal or a violation of university policy in the "off-line world" is illegal or a violation of university policy when it occurs in the "on-line world."

Remember, too, that the "on-line world" is not limited to The Catholic University of America, the District of Columbia, or even to the United States.

Computer users who engage in electronic communication with persons in other states or countries or on other systems or networks may also be subject to the laws of those other states and countries and the rules and policies of those other systems and networks.

It is impossible to list and describe every law and policy that applies to the use of university computing resources and the Internet - since, by and large, they all do - but the following are some of the issues that most frequently cause problems.