(Undated. Received by email 31 December 1996)
Northwestern entangled in Web of free-speech controversy
BY PAMELA CYTRYNBAUM
EVANSTON, Ill. — For two decades, Northwestern University professor Arthur R.
Butz has been trying to provoke a debate about the Holocaust, but now, thanks to
a home page he posted on the World Wide Web, he is at the center of a
controversy over free speech on the Internet.
Even though Butz’s views are demonstrably false — he refers to the Holocaust as
“the extermination legend” — Northwestern is providing Butz free access to
the Internet via the university-owned Web server, exposing his view of history
to a wide and growing audience.
The university is, metaphorically, giving Butz free stationery with NU’s
letterhead on it. In effect, it also is paying for Butz, who earned tenure in
1974, to make his material denying the Holocaust available to millions of
Internet users around the world.
When Sheldon Epstein, a Northwestern engineering instructor outraged by Butz’s
“hate, lies and libel,” recently refuted Butz’s views in class before a
relatively small number of students, he was fired. The reason: He had strayed
from the class curriculum.
Angry students demanded to know how the university could “harbor” Butz and
fire Epstein. Administrators answered that Butz has confined his Holocaust
comments to forums outside class — which the university has uneasily tolerated
for more than 20 years because of a staunch belief in freedom of speech for
The debate has landed Northwestern in one of the oldest and newest dilemmas in
higher education. The old part: How far does academic freedom extend inside and
outside the classroom? The new part: What about in cyberspace?
To keep pace with the information age, colleges and universities around the
nation are racing to offer faculty and students Internet access. At the same
time, they must struggle to balance academic freedom against emerging laws on
hate speech, truth and civil discourse on the Internet.
“Policies, if they have one, vary from school to school, and it is becoming
more and more common for schools to offer Internet access while trying to figure
out how to regulate it,” said George Trubow, director of the Center for
Information Technology and Privacy Law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
His own school’s policy requires Internet use be limited to law school business,
Similarly, the University of Illinois is drafting a policy that requires
Internet use be related to university matters, while the University of Iowa
policy demands “ethical and responsible behavior” by users, prohibiting
harassment, plagiarism or other violations of the law.
Several universities have set up committees to hear complaints of Internet
harassment or misuse.
Northwestern has chosen a different route: Almost anything goes.
The university’s decision to allow Butz free speech on the school’s Internet
server is particularly tolerant because as a private institution, it could,
without fear of violating his free-speech rights, muzzle the professor on the
Internet as a condition of employment, as it does in the classroom.
The heart of the matter, said NU President Henry S. Bienen, is intellectual
freedom. He said he would not curtail free speech by Butz or any other
“I’m a very strong civil libertarian,” Bienen said. “Even if I abhor what
someone is saying, I will defend their right to say it, and I defend his right
to say things that are idiotic — worse than idiotic.”
The university’s policy on intellectual freedom in cyberspace says: “The
network is a free and open forum for the expression of ideas,” including
unpopular ones. Administrators “place no official sanctions upon the expression
of personal opinion on the network. However, such opinions may not be
represented as the views of Northwestern University.”
Some observers, such as Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who specializes in
free speech and computer technology issues, believe the Internet and its
accessibility to millions has transformed the debate over academic freedom.
“Long before the Internet was created, a university professor could go to a
public quad, stand there and say whatever he wanted, and he was largely
protected by academic freedom,” Volokh said. “Back then maybe 10 people might
be listening. Now, on a Web site a professor can be seen by millions, which
means these cases are much more high-profile.”
Since last spring, Butz has been using Northwestern’s Internet server (a pathway
to the Internet used by faculty and students for free as well as a storage area
for vast amounts of information) to broadcast Holocaust revisionist material on
With a few keystrokes and clicks of a mouse, anyone can call up Butz’s home
page, which identifies Butz as an associate professor of engineering at NU, but
adds a disclaimer that his opinions are not related to his university position.
He hawks his 1976 book — “The Hoax of the 20th Century” — and his page
serves as a gateway to numerous Holocaust-denial articles. Students on campus
who zip through the university server can find Butz’s rambling Holocaust denials
written beneath a large purple Northwestern “N” — although it does not
appear for those accessing the site from outside campus.
Jerry Kang, a UCLA professor who writes on the law and how it pertains to
cyberspace, suggested that “because 100 million or so people have access to the
Web, the amount of possible damage to the reputation of Northwestern is
staggeringly different with this technology than if (Butz) were simply standing
on the street handing out fliers.”
NU’s administrators say they are maintaining a stance they have long held and
that they have no choice but to do so.
“There’s a long tradition of protecting faculty members’ free speech outside
the classroom,” said Michael C. Weston, vice president and general counsel for
the university. “The fact that it gets out into cyberspace creates a difference
in degree because tens of millions of people may see those views, but there’s
no difference in principle. It’s a slippery slope once you start.”
Weston compared professors’ Web pages to letters to the editor or opinion pieces
written on Northwestern stationery. “So long as they don’t indicate it’s the
view of the university, it is fine,” he said.
Northwestern does not have a formal policy regulating “hate speech,” e-mail
stalking or other forms of harassment both online and off, Weston said. The
university prefers to rely on student conduct codes and Illinois state laws
against hate crimes, Weston said.
It remains unclear what forms of Internet speech regulation will, if ever, pass
constitutional muster, he said. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to
decide whether Congress violated free-speech rights by restricting indecency on
“A lot of the law is evolving,” Weston said, “and we just have to be careful
not to jump in and change long-held principles just because the method of
communication has changed.”
The university has told Butz it will not tolerate him discussing the Holocaust
in class because the subject has nothing to do with what he teaches.
“He knows quite clearly that if he says one word about the Holocaust in his
classroom, he’ll be gone so fast his head will swim,” said Jerome Cohen, dean
of Northwestern University’s School of Engineering.
In the fall, Epstein, a part-time engineering instructor for two years, began
refuting Butz’s Holocaust views in his own engineering class and on the Internet
(at http://www.k9ape.com/C96/candor01.html). (Page doesn`t exist)
It was talking about Butz and the Holocaust in class that got Epstein fired; he
was told his contract, which ends Tuesday, will not be renewed.
“When I asked my students about the Holocaust and half of them didn’t know
anything about it, I felt I had to talk to them about the dangers of technology
because the 21st century has the potential for much more danger than ever
before,” Epstein said.
After articles about Epstein’s firing appeared recently in the Daily
Northwestern campus newspaper, students demanded answers from administrators and
wrote letters of protest.
“They fired a teacher for telling the truth about the Holocaust, and they’ve
harbored (Butz) in the engineering department for years,” said Mike Swieven, a
Northwestern graduate student in labor history.
Butz argues that a disclaimer on his Web page (at
http://pubweb.acns.nwu.edu/~abutz/)(Page doesn`t exist) clearly separates his views from his
role at the university. “I’m entitled to present my views on their server,” he
He also maintains that Epstein was “out of line.” The topic of the Holocaust,
he said, has no place in an engineering course: “I don’t think the Holocaust
should be taught from any point of view, not from mine, not from his.”
On that point, university officials and Butz agree.
The university has no problem making sure professors stay on point in class.
“The curriculum is clearly a university product, and we’re entitled to ensure
that what a student sees in the course catalogue is indeed what’s taught,”