Friday, April 24, 2009

What's a lesbian civil libertarian to think?

Okay. It's my gut feeling that outing people is kind of rude and uncalled for. But is it a criminal offense? And how far should an institution go in trying to catch someone who does this?

If accurate, this story, courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is truly bizarre.
On Friday, EFF and the law firm of Fish and Richardson filed an emergency motion to quash and for the return of seized property on behalf of a Boston College computer science student whose computers, cell phone, and other property were seized as part of an investigation into who sent an e-mail to a school mailing list identifying another student as gay. The problem? Not only is there no indication that any crime was committed, the investigating officer argued that the computer expertise of the student itself supported a finding of probable cause to seize the student's property.
According to another EFF report:
Some of the supposedly suspicious activities listed in support of the search warrant application include: the student being seen with "unknown laptop computers," which he "says" he was fixing for other students; the student uses multiple names to log on to his computer; and the student uses two different operating systems, including one that is not the "regular B.C. operating system" but instead has "a black screen with white font which he uses prompt commands on."
I wondered if there was an "opposing point of view," and did a quick web search on "boston college gay email investigation". Every reference to the story that I found seemed to be computer tech web sites that were repeating the EFF angle. Another quick search of mainstream news organizations found no reference to the story. I posted a request for information on the Boston College web site, and held this post for a few days to see if they responded. They didn't.

It sounds to me as if Boston College has gone way overboard in trying to punish the student they think was responsible. And the idea that using a command prompt is suspicious behavior would be funny, if it weren't so frightening. (Just as an aside, here, you don't need to use Linux to get a command prompt. Your Windows machine has one if you just look under "Accessories.") But maybe the story is more complicated than EFF is letting on. EFF seemed to gloss over the nature of the email in question. Was it ugly, vulgar, threatening?

Ironically, Boston College, an institution run by the Jesuits, is no haven for gay rights. At one time, it seems to have made a list of the nation's most homophobic campuses, although another article in the Boston Phoenix suggests that this reputation is not entirely deserved.

Radical feminists may remember Boston College as the one-time employer of philosopher Mary Daly. In 1999, Daly left Boston College after settling a lawsuit before it went to trial. Daly had sued BC for violating her tenure and free-speech rights, after the institution tried to force her to admit men to her regular classes.

No comments: