Northern Illinois University (NIU) has enacted a stunningly restrictive network use policy and is enforcing it through a filter that blocks or tags websites based on content—including speech clearly protected by the First Amendment.
NIU’s policy is in the news after one NIU student posted to Reddit a “Web Page Access Warning” he received while trying to visit the Wikipedia page about the Westboro Baptist Church from his dorm room. Betabeat reported on this and other student experiences with the filter, criticizing the public university for blocking access to a wide range of online expression.
The warning received by the Reddit user categorizes the Westboro Baptist Church’s Wikipedia page as “Illegal or Unethical.” While the warning appears to allow the student to click through to view the page, it notes that the URL the student is trying to access “has been recorded for review” and ominously states that “[u]nless you are accessing this site for legitimate business purposes, it is highly probable that the access would violate the Northern Illinois Acceptable Use Policy.” Betabeat reports that other websites are permanently blocked to NIU students.
Whether students are prohibited from visiting a website altogether or simply greeted by this bizarre threat of punishment, NIU’s enforcement of its policy is an egregious act of censorship.