Published in partnership with Shadowproof.
There are numerous examples of American colleges or universities invoking “civility” to stifle free speech, especially speech around the issue of Palestinian human rights. Multiple instances exist where students have demanded particular speech or acts of expression, which make them uncomfortable, be controlled or suppressed. On a lesser scale, there also appears to be a trend toward constraining “classified speech.”
“Classified speech” is speech containing or relying upon information, which is public but the United States government has not declassified yet. Colleges or universities that are part of the American security industrial-complex have “facility security clearances” or other obligations they have agreed to follow so administrators can maintain the stature of being a place that conducts classified U.S. government research.
Yet, the result of such arrangements is what happened to Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman, who produced Pulitzer Prize-winning work on documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Gellman was invited to Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, to give a keynote presentation on Snowden and “national security journalism in the age of surveillance.” The presentation was part of a colloquium called “Dawn or Doom” on the “risks and rewards of emerging technologies.” It was live streamed, and Gellman was promised a link for sharing his presentation after the event.
Purdue University emphasized in its description of the event that Gellman would offer a “fresh account of the disclosures and their aftershocks, drawing upon hundreds of hours of work with the classified NSA archive and scores of hours of interviews with Snowden.”
As Gellman has recounted, Purdue “wiped all copies” of his video and slides from university servers on the grounds that Gellman “displayed classified documents briefly on screen.”
“A breach report was filed with the university’s Research Information Assurance Officer, also known as the Site Security Officer, under the terms of Defense Department Operating Manual 5220.22-M. I am told that Purdue briefly considered, among other things, whether to destroy the projector I borrowed, lest contaminants remain,” Gellman added.
Gellman recognizes under a Pentagon agreement Purdue had to appear shocked when “spillage” was discovered at his presentation. The university ultimately determined three slides, which covered about five minutes in his presentation, tainted the talk so much that the entire keynote had to be erased so no student at Purdue would ever see the “breach.”
In a statement provided to Inside Higher Education, the legal counsel for Purdue, Steve Schultz, defended the decision to wipe all copies of Gellman’s presentation:
We don’t view this episode as any sort of compromise of Purdue’s commitment to free and open inquiry. It was the university’s desire to raise awareness of Mr. Gellman’s area of expertise that brought him to campus in the first place. When the classified nature of some material was confirmed, Purdue’s security officer made a judgment call, based on a reading of regulations, that we shouldn’t disseminate it. Purdue’s DSS industrial security representative confirmed the propriety of this assessment. In the course of communicating the decision to the technical team, the entire speech was removed from the website. We have acknowledged that perhaps a better way to comply with the law would have been to block only the classified information in question. But we don’t make the laws; we only do our best to follow them.
This overzealous attitude was exhibited by attendees at Gellman’s presentation. Gellman was specifically asked if he had shown documents classified “TS/SCI” or “top secret/sensitive compartmented information.” No one asks a journalist that question unless they have a background in classified intelligence work and are concerned about protecting the sanctity of U.S. secrets.
The same questioner wanted to know if the NSA had declassified the documents in question. Gellman explained they were still classified and, for the most part, government employees have been informed they should not look at them. He added the government will not declassify information because it does not want someone else to decide what is classified and what is not. However, that ties them up in some “pretty bad knots.”
This was not a good enough answer. One post-doctoral research engineer asked a follow-up about whether documents were “unclassified.” Gellman answered, “No, they’re classified still.”
As became evident, a number of people in the audience (possibly “junior security rangers” on faculty and staff) had no interest in exploring the issue of over-classification or how the government absurdly claims to still have control over information after it has leaked. They were uninterested in debating the extent to which agencies fight to maintain an alternative reality among government employees.
This kind of zeal is not entirely new. It has been seen in response to the Snowden’s disclosures and the documents from Chelsea Manning, which were published by WikiLeaks.
A military defense university established by Congress and known as the Defense Acquisition Universityblocked access to the Post in order to prevent trainees and workers from exposure to “classified material being released.”
A State Department official reportedly warned students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) that students applying for jobs in the federal government could see their prospects jeopardized if they were found to be reading and sharing documents from WikiLeaks or talking about WikiLeaks on Facebook or Twitter. (The university later reversed its position.)
But, most often, the zeal has been reserved for personnel working inside government agencies, like the Defense Department, which blocked The Guardian to shield employees from NSA documents, or the Library of Congress, which blocked access to WikiLeaks.
In fact, one of the oldest research libraries in the country reacted in a manner very similar to Purdue. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) made a recommendation, and the Library of Congress claimed to be following “applicable law” that required them to “protect classified information.” They went along with the notion that “unauthorized disclosures of classified documents do not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents.”
Such a posture toward information is less about security and more about loyalty. Students and faculty engaged in classified government research, who make up a very small part of the university, act as missionaries guarding against anyone who violates the blessedness of information marked classified by anyone from the vast security apparatus with such power.
Not only does a policy like this empower students and faculty to challenge a journalist for engaging in investigative journalism, but it makes it possible to take concrete action to effectively police speech.
As Gellman reflected, “Now the security apparatus claims jurisdiction over the campus (“facility”) at large. The university finds itself “sanitizing” a conference that has nothing to do with any government contract. Where does it stop? Suppose a professor wants to teach a network security course, or a student wants to write a foreign policy paper, that draws on the rich public record made available by Snowden and Chelsea Manning? Those cases will be hard to distinguish from mine.”
Or, take it a step farther. The documents are not classified to the government. The information contained in the document is classified.
If the policy is fully embraced by Purdue University is applied, when any of that information is discussed with a reporter and is published, it has now technically a “breach” that the university should protect itself from because the government did not classify the information. That means any major newspapers covering national security stories should probably be censored and/or removed entirely from campus.
Such a policy is incomprehensible and, contrary to the view of Purdue’s legal counsel, toxic to any institution claiming to value academic freedom and open inquiry. Nonetheless, it is what institutions think they must adopt in order to protect access and prestige, as a part of the American security industrial-complex.