Speech Issues

Discussion Questions

    Discussion of the Issue of Free Speech

Discussion Questions

The Jake Baker case.

Peruse the on-line readings on the Jake Baker case. Then address one or more of these questions.
  1. Was it ethical of Baker to write the sexual fantasy he did that named a student in his class?
  2. Was it proper of University of Michigan President James Duderstadt to suspend Baker under the provision that allows him to take actions necessary to keep order on campus?
  3. University officials said they would not have taken action against Baker if he had not named his potential victim. Would Baker, by widely publicizing his desire to commit crimes of violence, have been a threat to order even if he had not named his victim?
  4. Baker was indicted for threatening the abovementioned student, but charges were later dropped. Does it appear to you that he had committed an indictable offense?
  5. If you were the threatened student, would your fears be allayed by his expulsion, or would you feel safer if he were fined or jailed for his actions?
  6. If you believe that Baker had a First Amendment right to post the stories he wrote, does this also mean the university had no right to suspend, let alone expel, him?
  7. The Internet allows any individual to reach a potentially wide audience, much wider than in any self-published print newsletter. Does this impose ethical limitations on one's free speech that are more stringent than in print newsletters?

Restricting online information.

Should there be restrictions on on-line information, and if so, who should impose them? The documents on this week's Web page, especially those in the Overview section, offer good background on this subject.

  1. Several reasons have been suggested for restricting indecent, obscene, or pornographic material on the Internet. What do you think of them?
    • The Internet is too accessible to children, and it is impossible to determine whether a "consumer" of these materials has reached the legal age.
    • Since Miller v. California , "community standards" have determined whether sexually oriented materials are legally obscene in a given community, but it is impossible to fix any limits on a community on the Internet.
  2. If restrictions are needed, who should impose them?
    • Should it be government?
    • Should it be on-line services and Internet access providers (including schools and universities)?
      1. Santa Rosa Junior College got into trouble for not restricting what appeared on its campus system, while Carnegie Mellon University was attacked for restricting theirs. What's a campus administrator to do?
      2. A free-speech purist would contend that on-line services should not be allowed to restrict what customers put on their networks. Do you agree?
      3. Is a college compelled to "censor" the "electronic free speech" of students in an attempt to prevent harassment?
      4. Does the presence of a moderator make a difference? Perhaps an unmoderated conference is subject to free-speech protections, but if there is a moderator, then (s)he must do his job.
      5. Should a federal agency be allowed to force a university to answer the above question one way or another?
      6. Is it ethical for a college to demand non-divulgence of electronic conversations? Is that a violation of freedom of speech, or a legitimate use of a non-compulsory electronic conference?
      7. Is any electronic conference sponsored by a college an "educational activity"?
      8. Is a conference a private conference simply because students must ask to join (even if everyone who asks to join is allowed to)?
      9. Should a university be involved in setting up a conference that, in effect, lets some students talk behind other students' backs?
      10. If your answer to the previous question is yes, is it ethical to set up separate conferences for men and women students?
      11. Did Dylan Humphrey behave ethically by breaking confidentiality?

Online hate and porn: Is there a technological "fix"?

The question of how to protect children from pornography and hate literature is fraught with controversy. One side says that government should restrict the availability of these materials on-line, just as it has restricted them off-line. The other side notes that it is difficult or impossible to limit children's access without also limiting adults' access, and views government restrictions as violations of free speech.

Free-speech advocates suggest that parents limit their children's access, citing several programs that block access to offending Websites and newsgroups. But critics note that parents aren't all computer literate and children might find ways to bypass the controls. (Search for "empower" in this article.)

  1. Which risk do you find more troubling, that children will gain access to inappropriate materials, or that government will infringe on constitutionally protected speech?
  2. Are Internet filters an acceptable compromise in dealing with the problem?
  3. What about foreign Websites -- how can U.S. law attack the problem when the Internet is worldwide?
  4. Another approach is for Internet sites to screen their documents for appropriateness without also limiting adult audiences. Would this approach be effective? What if the raunchiest sites chose not to comply? Could government -- or Internet access providers -- mandate that documents be coded?
For more background, you might peruse some of the documents in the cyberporn or hate speech sctions of this week's Web page.
Index of Topic - Study Guide