Universities Vexed by Use of Their Internet Connections for Hate Mail

By Serge F. Kovaleski Washington Post Staff Writer

During the last four months, a prolific right-wing extremist has sent at least 825 messages crackling across the Internet on such topics as gunning down elected officials and toppling a "murdering oppressive" federal government. Each missive shows that it was sent from a computer at the University of Maryland.

The sender identifies himself in cyberspace as Mike Chapman. The problem is that the school has no record of this person. After launching an investigation into one of his latest postings, university officials said they believe a former student created a school computer account for Chapman that gave him access to the Internet. They also found that the message originated at the University of Virginia.

"It's a security nightmare," said University of Maryland spokesman Gary M. Stephenson. "The only connection to the university is that somebody is exploiting our Internet capabilities from a remote site in violation of our acceptable use policies." There is a Mike Chapman enrolled at UVA, but university executive vice president Leonard W. Sandridge said he is not the same person who sends the right-wing Internet messages. "Increasingly we are seeing occasions where we have to protect access to our computers from persons not authorized to use them," he said.

Administrators at dozens of universities and colleges are grappling with similar predicaments as extreme right-wing organizations and their supporters take advantage of the Internet's sprawling reach to disseminate and discuss their views on topics from the federal government to white supremacy. Universities have been the backbone of Internet, with most offering their students free or inexpensive on-line access in dormitories, libraries and other locations. Students who belong to radical groups or share their philosophies are using school Internet access to spread their dogma through cyberspace. In some cases, they are providing like-minded individuals with access to their school computer accounts. In others, hackers are illegally breaking into college computers to get onto the Internet.

Users say one of the biggest advantages of school Internet accounts is that they are much less expensive for students to utilize than commercial providers. By having an educational institution's name listed on the header of an Internet posting, authors say they can give the appearance that their messages are endorsed by reputable schools -- when in fact they are not -- and that they carry credibility in mainstream thinking.

"This is becoming one of the major battlefields in spreading racial intolerance and hate, as well as violence and mayhem," said Rabbi Abraham D. Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights agency based in Los Angeles that tracks hate groups. "The use of these Internet accounts is cheap or free, instantaneous and it gives that stamp of respectability."

It is also far reaching. At least 30 million people worldwide are estimated to have some degree of access to the Internet.

This use of school Internet accounts has school officials in a quandary. Historically, free speech has been among the thorniest issues for college administrators; ranging from school newspapers to the campus soapbox, students have always tested the constitutional limits of speech.

Universities have dealt with problems in the past involving the use of obscene and sexually explicit language by students on the Internet. But hate mail, in particular right-wing propaganda, is emerging as a one of the more predominant issues for school administrations.

While some student postings -- such as a missive that came from a militia sympathizer at the University of South Florida urging readers to blow up buildings full of government bureaucrats and wealthy people and poison water supplies -- are clearly inflammatory, constitutional specialists say that such speech is protected to a large extent so long as it is not directly linked to a probability of action.

Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that while lots of people are troubled by these protections, "they have to remember that the First Amendment was created to protect disturbing, offensive, even frightening speech because no one tries to ban the other kind."

Computer specialists said that the Internet's ability to bring ideas from out of the mainstream to a huge audience is one of the medium's greatest strengths.

Universities would surely face daunting constitutional challenges if they tried to regulate conduct on their Internet accounts -- as a few watchdog groups have recommended -- like some Canadian schools have recently done. But a number of universities here are taking more limited steps.

The University of Texas (UT) at Austin is forming a task force to reevaluate its policies governing the use of the Internet. One issue the panel will explore when it convenes in September is whether to place a disclaimer on students' communications stipulating that the messages are not endorsed by the university.

"We need to be sure that we have clear enough policies so people know what they are encountering when they search the World Wide Web," said Patricia C. Ohlendorf, a counsel to the president and a vice provost at UT in Austin. "Are they encountering something put out by the institution or an individual?" The panel was prompted in part by complaints the university received about a student and self-avowed skinhead who was using his home page -- entitled "Cyberhate" -- on the school's Internet line to distribute lists of white nationalist groups and "White Aryan race" propaganda. Although he told UT officials he would voluntarily remove the postings from the Internet, he has continued, denouncing what he calls the "Zionist conspiracy."

"It's cheap, for one thing, and it's a good service," the student, Reuben Logsdon, a senior physics major, said about his UT Internet access in a recent interview.

He noted that he has seen Internet communications among right-wing college students increase dramatically since the deadly 1993 federal siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. "The Internet is important because it is able to bypass the mass media so that our views are not distorted," Logsdon said.

Specialists said that dealing with Internet hate speech first requires some philosophical examination. "A private individual running an Internet service has to decide whether this is a good or bad thing," said Scott Charney, chief of the Justice Department's computer crime unit. "Some people say the best way to deal with hate speech is to have more speech so it can be debated. And the other side says you can't talk to these people because they are not open-minded enough to have a meaningful debate or that they shouldn't be tolerated because that kind of language spawns actions."

The hateful use of college Internet accounts has produced unwitting victims. In April 1994, someone stole a University of Michigan student's computer account name and password to gain access to the Internet. A group purporting to be the Organization for Execution of Minorities posted a list of vicious threats against African Americans.

The messages automatically included the student's electronic mail address. The next morning, hundreds of angry messages were flooding into the university. "It's a cold, sad, ruthless thing," the student, who requested anonymity, said in a recent interview. "But the way the Net responded with outrage and directness was the best thing."

A similar incident occurred in October 1994 when someone broke into the electronic mail account of a Texas A&M professor and fired off racist messages to about 20,000 computer users in four states. The messages were similar to a flier produced by the white supremacist National Alliance.

The more militant postings appear on such news groups as misc.activism.militia, which Chapman claims to have founded. Two days before House Democrats held a special hearing on militias, a chilling invective was posted on the news group and bore a University of Maryland address. "What do you think would happen if tomorrow morning 260 million people were to pick up the paper or turn on the tube and see the headline story of `ARMED MILITIA MEMBERS GUN DOWN CONGRESSPERSON IN COLD BLOOD?' " Chapman wrote.

Attempts to reach Chapman, who has also posted messages on subjects including marijuana and computers, were unsuccessful. But a number of students who have been posting far right-wing writings said their efforts are educational.

Ron Copley, a student at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., said: "I am educating people to what I believe, which is that there are inherent differences between the races and there has been an establishment-ordered genocide program against the white race. There are active measures that have to be taken to overcome that."

Staff researcher Roland Matifas and staff writer John Schwartz contributed to this report.

Copyright 1995 The Washington Post.