Columbia University Reverses Anti-WikiLeaks Guidance
Days after Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) caused an uproar by warning its students against linking to WikiLeaks or discussing the secret-spilling website’s latest cache of diplomatic cables online, the prestigious training ground for future diplomats has changed tack and embraced free speech.
Last week, the SIPA Office of Career Services sent an e-mail to students saying that an alumnus who works at the U.S. State Department had recommended that current students not tweet or post links to WikiLeaks, which is in the process of releasing 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables — many of them classified — because doing so could hurt their career prospects in government service.
“Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government,” the Office of Career Services wrote.
Now, SIPA Dean John H. Coatsworth has clarified the school’s policy and issued a ringing endorsement of free speech and academic freedom.
“Freedom of information and expression is a core value of our institution,” Coatsworth wrote in an e-mail to the SIPA community Monday morning (full e-mail message below). “Thus, SIPA’s position is that students have a right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena that they deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens, and to do so without fear of adverse consequences.”
SIPA Professor Gary Sick, the prominent Middle East expert who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, went even further in repudiating the memo.
“If anyone is a master’s student in international relations and they haven’t heard of WikiLeaks and gone looking for the documents that relate to their area of study, then they don’t deserve to be a graduate student in international relations,” Sick told Wired.com in an interview.
Still, the school says it will pass on any official State Department WikiLeaks guidelines, if and when it gets them.
Over the weekend State Dept. spokesperson P.J. Crowley denied that there is a formal policy warning students against reading, linking or discussing the WikiLeaks cable online. SIPA’s original warning attributed the no-commenting on the released cables to an unnamed State Department alumnus.
Neither Coatsworth’s office nor a State Dept. spokesperson immediately returned requests for comment.
Despite the numerous stories that the leaked cables have inspired, the federal government is calling the leaks dangerous to national security and “illegal.” Following outrage from the government, both Amazon and PayPal suspended services to WikiLeaks in the past week, while federal government IT systems (including that of the Library of Congress) have started blocking access to the site.
The original Career Services warning provoked a spirited debate on and off campus about free speech and academic freedom.
In the interview, Sick said the Career Services warning was most likely a well-meaning attempt to remind students that what they post on social networking sites can affect their career prospects. But, he said, asking international affairs graduate students not to use the internet to discuss WikiLeaks is, well, “absurd.”
Not only is such a request likely to be ignored, but it sends the wrong message to students, according to Sick.
Sick has criticized the WikiLeaks release as an “ego trip for [WikiLeaks chief] Julian Assange,” and said that many of the cables pose a real risk to U.S. interests. But, he said, trying to prevent international relations students from reading or discussing them is naive at best.
“It doesn’t hurt to remind students that things they say in public can be documented and can affect their career prospects,” Sick said. “But The New York Times and Fox News are all reporting their interpretations of the WikiLeaks documents. Scholars and students always want to go to the source, not take someone else’s word for it.”
Telling students that they can’t read or discuss the primary documents is “absolutely contrary to any decent practice in international affairs or any other field of study,” Sick said.
And anyway, he said, “It’s too late. The barn door is wide open. The internet is full of this stuff and it’s not going to go away. They can only make it worse by trying to crack down on this and push it back down the rabbit hole.”
In a blog post over the weekend entitled, “Am I a Criminal?” Sick elaborated: “Note to the US government: We know this is bad for you. Don’t make it worse by criminalizing everyone who studies international politics.”
Full e-mail message from SIPA Dean John H. Coatsworth follows:
December 6, 2010
Dear SIPA Community,
Last Tuesday, SIPA’s Office of Career Services received a call from a former student currently employed by the U.S. Department of State who pointed out that the U.S. government documents released during the past few months through WikiLeaks are still considered classified. The caller suggested that students who will be applying for federal jobs that require background checks avoid posting links to these documents or making comments about them on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter.
OCS emailed this cautionary suggestion to students, as it has done many times with other information that could be helpful in seeking employment after graduation. We know that many students today share a great deal about their lives online and that employers may use that information when evaluating their candidacy. Subsequent news stories have indicated that the Department of State has issued guidelines for its own employees, but has not issued any guidelines for prospective employees.
Freedom of information and expression is a core value of our institution. Thus, SIPA’s position is that students have a right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena that they deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens, and to do so without fear of adverse consequences. The WikiLeaks documents are accessible to SIPA students (and everyone else) from a wide variety of respected sources, as are multiple means of discussion and debate both in and outside of the classroom.
Should the U.S. Department of State issue any guidelines relating to the WikiLeaks documents for prospective employees, SIPA will make them available immediately.
John H. Coatsworth
Original e-mail message from the Office of Career Services:
From: Office of Career Services
Date: Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 3:26 PM
Subject: Wikileaks – Advice from an alum
To: “Office of Career Services (OCS)”
We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.
The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.
Office of Career Services
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