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Around the block with ASU

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Few were surprised when Arizona State University recently blocked access to change.org, a popular and widely-used website that allows Internet denizens the opportunity to author and sign petitions that promote social change. The bolt from the blue came quickly, in the form of a hasty reversal of the ban and an awful lot of back-pedaling by the university.

Angry activists buried ASU in emailed complaints within hours of the net block, which the school is claiming had nothing to do with change.org’s content. The blockade became necessary, according to ASU, to protect its web network from spam and viruses.

“Arizona State University blocked access to the website change.org after it was used to spam thousands of university email accounts in early December, 2011,” according to an official release sent to media just after ASU’s access to change.org was restored. “[T]he university routinely blocks both inbound and outbound access to sites that distribute spam to stop the propagation of malware and the associated compromise of an individual’s personal information or the security of university accounts and information. The university blocks spam emails regardless of their content.”

The release went on to state that “ASU strongly supports the First Amendment and an individual’s or group’s right to free speech.” But some of the university’s detractors disagree, in part because the plug-pulling on change.org occurred while the site was circulating a petition demanding a decrease in ASU’s tuition rates. It’s that petition, according to a Tumblr blog post written by ASU student, Eric Haywood, that was behind the university’s censure on December 7 – an accusation that ASU firmly denied. Yet mere hours after Haywood created a second petition titled “Arizona State University: Stop CENSORING change.org,” the school’s ban on the petitioning site was suddenly lifted.

But not quickly enough to keep the story from going national and drawing fire from several activist organizations. “The timing of ASU’s actions in this case has created the unmistakable impression that ASU has used its spam policy as a pretext to deny access to a petition because of content that is critical of the university and its administration,” a spokesperson from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote in a letter to ASU president, Michael Crow, in early February.

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