Moderating the Net: LISTSERV E-Mail Discussion Lists and Freedom of Speech in the Academic Environment

Raymond Day
Montana State University-Northern

Note: This paper was given at the Second Annual Conference on Intellectual Freedom, April 1996, Montana State University-Northern

In this paper I will present the argument that the existence of moderated e-mail discussion lists illustrates the inaccuracy of the portrayal of the Internet as an unregulated medium of information exchange in need of government supervision. In the current crossfire over pornography on the Internet and the issue of free speech some salient but more subtle aspects of control of content are generally overlooked. The cultural domination of the Internet by North Americans in particular, and the appropriation of sections of it by certain groups in the interests of their own professional objectives render the idea of Cyberspace as "open" and "free" misleading. The pornography debate rests upon the assumption that the Internet is a frontier, lawless, unregulated, anarchic--a frontier where brilliant innovators and creative individuals can develop and express themselves, allowing infinite possibilities to emerge in the area of human communication. The downside of the frontier analogy is that subversive individuals can peddle perverse material to the innocent "cybersurfer," undermining their moral fabric. To some extent the whole pornography debate is a red-herring; a scare story blown out of all proportion that provides good copy for the tabloid press and ammunition for those who seek to justify control and regulation of disagreeable and challenging information that may undermine the political and social status quo at any given point in time (1). Unfortunately, the discussion of the broader implications of information control in modern societies as argued by Noam Chomsky, among others, is beyond the scope of this discussion (2). However, I will argue that the entire foundation of the struggle between the restrictionists and the libertarians in the Internet debate is flawed.

The Internet is not a free and open frontier and has not been for quite some time (if it ever was.) Long before debates over the restriction of pornographic images on the Net gained momentum--in the days when graphic browsers such as Mosaic and Netscape on which to view such material did not exist, the Net was, and continues to be, carefully filtered and regulated by its users (3). An example of this regulation is the establishment of moderated e-mail discussion lists in which groups of individuals with a common interest conduct closed discussions on the Internet, the content of which is moderated by editors.

E-mail discussion lists operate by taking e-mail messages and automatically distributing them to those who have subscribed to the list service--in the case of academic lists, subscription is usually free. Joining a list is as easy as sending a message to a computer equipped with list-management software such as LISTSERV. Lists are generally focused on a particular topic. With any list membership having thousands of subscribers interested in a topic, and communication and feedback between these subscribers being virtually instantaneous, a powerful and rapid ability to disseminate information and consult with one's colleagues in a specified subject area has truly revolutionary implications. At the end of 1994, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that there were more than 2000 academic mailing lists available on the Internet "spanning the alphabet from Abnormal Psychology to Yiddish literature" (4). Such lists have been credited with glorious virtues including tearing down the walls of academe that separate well-known scholars from graduate students entering a field, removing geographical boundaries to communication, providing academic recognition to list-editors within their field, and, above all, the timely and comprehensive distribution of information, including research tips, syllabi exchanges, book reviews, teaching materials, conference announcements and news about job openings. The egalitarian nature of e-mail is the most celebrated aspect of this form of communication (5).

Discussion lists represent most explicitly the self-regulating development of the Internet. In fact, given the global decentralized structure of this vast network of computers, self-regulation is the only viable option. Cyberspace is, as is implied in the somewhat incorporeal label, a new space in the process of being colonized and, as such, follows certain historically pre-ordained patterns of development. One of the developments concomitant with colonization is the growth of order. We see the impact of large, powerful economic units interspersed with small, self-regulating communities, and the rise of international standardization, not only in format but in style, too, as in the case of "netiquette." Cyberspace is shaken and fundamentally altered by rapid technological change, growth and assimilation, alliances and mergers, and the rise of a distinct culture, but order remains. Order is determined by the needs of the users. Cyberspace culture itself claims its own community standards.

Such community standards are the product of a socially homogeneous base, which is also a force for order. The population of Internet users is skewed and distinct from general demographic trends. This is illustrated by the Georgia Institute of Technology's Graphic Visualization and Usability Center's 4th WWW User Survey released in December 1995. This survey, reiterating the trends of previous surveys in a series, concluded that out of 23,000 respondents with an average income of $63,000, 70.7% of users were male, 83.2% of the respondents were white, 63.4% held a Bachelor's degree or above, with predominant occupations in Education (30.9%) and Computers (29.1%). Other Professional (19.9%) and Management (10.2%) came in a significant third and fourth. Finally, with 76.2% of users located in the US, Cyberspace, if it is a frontier, may well be viewed as an American frontier (6).

Focusing on one example of self-regulation and the intrinsic censorship aspects associated with it may provide a fruitful illustration of how misguided and unfounded are current assumptions about anarchy on the Net, specifically a single network, the H-Net.

H-Net is now one of the largest organizations in the humanities, claims its executive director, Richard Jensen, professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It is a network of e-mail discussion lists edited by and for scholars, maintaining some 80 operating lists that reach over 40,000 subscribers in 70 different countries. Subscription to the lists are free of charge, they are endorsed by a collection of scholarly organizations, and together they comprise "the single most used communications medium in higher education today" (7). H-Net's primary activity is the maintenance of Internet discussion lists for historians, among others, and its headquarters are at Michigan State University. H-Net also runs training programs for scholars on how to navigate the Internet and use its resources through on-line programs and on-campus workshops. H-Net publishes book reviews tapping the massive pool of scholars in its membership. It has also developed a large and growing multimedia support group to assist humanities faculty world-wide with the use and development of multimedia technology for the classroom. H-Net receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The organization is centered around a standing executive committee, periodically elected by its membership, that employs a secretariat and staff to maintain the servers. Further, each discussion list is edited by a team of moderators appointed by the executive committee on the basis of competitive application. The lists are maintained voluntarily by editors with the support of editorial boards. The list editors' duties include managing subscriptions to their lists; screening and posting messages; commissioning book, software and film reviews; and placing items on the H-Net fileservers--a private archive of list business and material open to list subscribers. Each list operates under strict policy guidelines outlining its objectives and content orientation. These list policies are determined by the executive committee in consultation with editors, editorial boards and organizations with whom a list may be affiliated. Catering as they do to specialized areas of scholarly interest, the lists' editors have the primary duty of editing material posted to the list to maintain its relevance to the subject orientation of the discussion group. Editors, in this respect, are Internet gatekeepers who work within the broad objective stated as being "to enable scholars to easily communicate current research and teaching interests; to discuss new approaches, methods and tools of analysis; to share information on electronic databases; and to test new ideas and share comments on current historiography" (8).

H-Net is an elaborate organization. However, despite the resemblance to a collection of peer reviewed academic journals, H-Net's editorial practice runs the gauntlet of criticism because of the nature of e-mail, occupying, as it does, an ethereal space somewhere between the printed and spoken word. Submissions to a printed journal are subject to editorial control as a matter of course. Submissions to an e-mail forum are subject to editorial control at the risk of restriction of freedom of speech. This is because e-mail to an open, unedited list is akin to public speech; e-mail to an edited list is akin to submissions to a journal. It is conventionally acceptable for the editors of a journal to reject a submission using their judgment based upon the editorial policy of a particular publication--it is a different matter if someone attempts to censor a speaker in a public space. It is just this lack of clarity about the nature of the e-mail medium that led to a particular controversy over H-Net editorial policy in late 1994. The example is illustrative of two central points. Firstly, the Internet is a peer-review-controlled forum in at least this area, rendering external governmental censorship superfluous. Secondly, grave problems remain over the distinction between speech and the written word within one large sector of the Internet, e-mail, that may have implications for intellectual freedom.

In January 1995, Jesse Lemisch, professor of History at the CUNY, occupied the full page "Point of View" column in the Chronicle of Higher Education with an article entitled "The First Amendment is Under Attack in Cyberspace" (9). The article was a tirade against those who were unilaterally placing repressive limits on communication in the name of decorum and civility. The object of Dr. Lemisch's passionate rebuke was H-Net. The background and precursor to the publication was the controversy arising from the decision by the editor on an H-Net list, H-AmStdy, not to post on the list a personally critical comment made by Lemisch attacking a sociologist engaged in a discussion about right-wing PC who had failed to recognize the names of two prominent historians cited in the discussion. Lemisch's post pointed out that the sociologist had "only the most narrow and idiosyncratic notion of PC which makes him incapable of comprehending the simple notion of right-wing political correctness." The editor's response in this instance was to e-mail Lemisch to say that he would not post the comment to the list unless it was changed. The "flaming" was unnecessary and counterproductive, courtesy required courtesy (10). Lemisch replied to the editor with a message for the list describing the initial refusal and suggesting that the list discuss censorship. This was not posted either, as the discussion, in the view of the editor, would have amounted to little more than "navel gazing." H-Net actively discourages "flaming" in the name of "academic customs of decorum" according to Jensen. As far as the editor was concerned, in this instance the issue hinged upon the judgment of Lemisch's original post as a flame. Flaming is a persistent problem on discussion lists in general--the psychology of anonymous aggression is similar to the phenomenon of road-rage. The problem with personal attacks on discussion lists is their public nature, which stings the target and provokes an equally aggressive response. The descent into Flame Wars is generally accepted as the major problem of unedited news groups and discussion lists.

Dr. Lemisch, in his Point of View article, argues that there is no clearly agreed-upon definition of flaming, which is true enough, and more significantly that "there is no way to ban valueless or offensive speech without banning valuable speech as well." He points to the lack of consensus over what constitutes appropriate decorum on the Internet and how H-Net's position on this issue sacrifices freedom to sensitivity, "attempts to enforce civility place many moderators in loco parentis, treating scholars and other Internet users as children to be protected from their supposed indiscretions" (11). H-Net went into paroxysms over this episode. The question of censorship was conferred over in internal editorial lists, Lemisch was offered his own list, to be set up and maintained by the organization, in which he could flesh out the issue. The process of introspection culminated with Jensen writing a considered response in the form of a letter to the editor of the Chronicle manifesting precisely the type of paternalism Lemisch appears to despise: "Scholars who subscribe to some of the thousands of unmoderated lists...know that the Internet is susceptible to very rude flames. Normally restrained professors sometimes blurt out responses they quickly regret, and a few verbal abusers simply ignore academic customs of decorum. H-Net was created to provide a positive, supportive, egalitarian environment for the friendly exchange of ideas and scholarly resources, not to broadcast shouts and insults."

He also added that the First Amendment called for freedom of the press and in academic settings this translates into "gatekeepers"--just as published journals have editors and colleges have admissions applications procedures, so too do the H-Net lists. Subscribers, being busy people, require that gatekeepers sort and select for them. Furthermore, the First Amendment also insists upon the right of peaceable assembly and on H-Net assemblies it is insisted that people be civil (12).

For the sake of civility and restraint, Lemisch's flame was not posted in the instance cited above. However, in light of Jensen's further explanation about the role of gate-keeping and control of content on the Internet, such coerced civility and restraint echoes very much the broad sense definition of censorship. The Academic American Encyclopedia defines censorship as "suppression of information, ideas, or artistic expression by anyone, whether government officials, church authorities, private pressure groups or speakers, writers, and artists themselves" with the justification that "...the expression, if not curtailed, will do harm to individuals in its audience, or to society as a whole" (13). Nonetheless, arguably H-Net lists are not public spaces, neither are other edited e-mail discussion lists with a clear and announced policy and set of objectives. They are in fact private spaces into which people who freely agree to abide by a set of rules are admitted. In the case of an academic list, this involves consent to peer-review. Furthermore the whole question of the First Amendment with respect to the Internet is problematical, particularly in cases like these. The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech applies only to government action. State supported universities occupy a gray area, but private universities do not act under government authority. Therefore, if H-Net list editors at any given time are members of the faculty of private universities, the First Amendment would not apply to them. Taking the loosest interpretation of the First Amendment, and given the nebulous structure of an organization with editors all over the world, appeals to it can only be extremely weak.

The Internet has indeed outrun the Constitution. It has further outrun current concepts of freedom of speech. The only model we have on which to base e-mail organizations like H-Net are scholarly journals. But e-mail lists, although serving informational functions similar to journals, are definitely not the same. Communication via e-mail, though not real-time as a rule, is similar to speech in its immediacy and interactiveness. Yet it is recorded, stored and distributed in printed form. Therefore, list-editing is really setting new precedents. However, the control of academic discourse on such lists currently follows the same precepts of academic freedom that are in operation in academia itself, resting as they do on the principle of peer-review. At a broader level, order is taking precedence over chaos on the Net in general. External governmental regulation is not only fraught with difficulties in such a global communications system, but is also ineffective compared with self-regulation, which can achieve remarkable levels of sophistication benefiting particular groups. As for censorship, as the Lemisch case illustrates, it, like ugliness, exists in the eye of the beholder.


(1) One example of the power of uncontrolled information distribution is the role played by RelCom during the August 1991 coup attempt in the Soviet Union that ultimately catapulted Boris Yeltsin to power. RelCom, a small e-mail service provider, became one of the few unrestricted communications media left after the censorship of radio and television stations and newspapers. During the period of Gorbachev's arrest, RelCom was able to provide reports to CNN and the Associated Press and relay foreign news of the coup to its own subscribers in the Soviet Union. Larry Press, Proceedings iNet'92, Kobe, Japan, quoted in Tracy LaQuey The Internet Companion (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993).

(2) For an introduction to Chomsky's intriguing observations in this area, with the emphasis placed on information control in western democracies, especially the United States, see Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1989).

(3) BITNET commenced as a cooperative network at the City University of New York providing e-mail and LISTSERV servers to distribute information in as far back as 1981--the WWW was pioneered by CERN in 1991. It is FROM this date that the Internet, as we know it today, really took off. The user-friendly WWW was the catalyst. The number of hosts more than doubled in the 2 years 1992-94. The number of networks increased from about 6,500 to 20,500 in the same period. Robert Hobbes Zakon's Hobbes' Internet Timeline <>.

(4) DeLoughry, Thomas J. "For the Community of Scholars 'Being Connected' Takes on a Whole New Meaning." Chronicle of Higher Education 4 Nov. 1994: A25.

(5) Ibid.

(6) 4th WWW User Survey. Georgia Institute of Technology's Graphic Visualization and Usability Center <>. The US dominance of the Net has great cultural implications, not least the language used. Even among predominantly English-speaking countries this has its impact, for example, inactive members on e-mail lists are referred to as "Lurkers" in American English. Australians reserve the term "Lurker" for child molesters.

(7) Jensen, Richard. "What is H-Net?" Online posting. 15 Feb. 1996 <http://h-net2.msu/about/>.

(8) "H-Net Charter, March 1995" and "H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences On-Line." Online posting. H-Net Humanities On-Line <>.

(9) Lemisch, Jesse. "The First Amendment is Under Attack in Cyberspace." Chronicle of Higher Education 20 Jan. 1995: A56.

(10) Flaming is customarily defined as an ad hominem attack on an individual through e-mail that provokes a similar response and sometimes diffuses through an entire group. From an initial misunderstanding the insults are amplified as more join in the fray.

(11) Lemisch, op. cit.

(12) Jensen, Richard. "Letter to the Editor." E-mail post. 19 Jan. 1996.

(13) "Censorship." Academic American Encyclopedia. Danbury, CT: Grolier, 1988.

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