October 27, 2003
Update: Even Eeyore’s writing to Swarthmore, so I figured I should get in gear and do so too (after all, if an Eeyore feels he can make a difference, then anyone can). Here’s my letter. And here’s a link to the Diebold docs at my Harvard account.
What is most frustrating for me is that Swarthmore should know better. I’m not just saying that because the law and the media are on their side. Sure, they’re in a good strategic position. But they’re also an elite academic institution and should know, strategy or no strategy, that this is a stand that needs to be taken. This matter cuts to the core of the university’s mission: to encourage and provide a haven for serious debate and scholarship about important issues. How can a copyright C+D make them forget all other academic principles?
Swarthmore’s actions, I think, are part of a larger trend. Copyright’s dominance of Internet and technology issues is now bleeding into the university, from Penn State to Swarthmore to Wyoming to Harvard and many more. Copyright holders have colleges running scared. Are we willing to let serious academic issues be determined in this simplistic way?
I’ve noted in the past that some colleges, though feeling overwhelmed, have reacted with moderately good policy solutions without sacrificing academic freedoms, fair use, and the university’s independence. There have been some bright spots. But on the whole, it hasn’t been pretty.
Ever since my frustration with Harvard’s silly new repeat offender policy, I’ve started to think that someone needs to write a best policies manual for universities specifically. Universities need to be reminded what’s at stake and instructed on how they can accomodate the law without crippling academic freedom. Such a manual would make very clear what the law actually says so that universities like Harvard and Swarthmore do not unnecessarily go beyond it to avoid liability. The EFF has something similar to what I’m thinking of; also, Fred von Lohmann outlined some ideas here, and I noted others here. I’d like to see something even more comprehensive – if one already exists, please tell me – if one doesn’t, I’d love to help someone write it.
While nothing requires Swarthmore to stick up for their students in this case, I am saddened that they haven’t. Hopefully, other universities will learn from Swartmore’s mistakes.