Spam filters and storage limits okay under First Amendment

Plaintiff de Mino, a part-time faculty member at the University of Houston Downtown, filed suit against the University, claiming that various restrictions placed on the use of school e-mail accounts violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

Specifically, de Mino complained of the University’s practice of shutting down e-mail accounts for adjunct professors during the summer, when they were not under contract to teach. He further complained of the inability to transmit e-mail after his account had reached its data storage limit. De Mino had other problems with the e-mail system when he failed to designate his personal e-mail address as legitimate, thus certain messages he had sent to other faculty had been caught in the system’s spam filter. De Mino contended that he was denied access when he tried to communicate with other faculty regarding University policies.

The court granted summary judgment in favor of the University, and dismissed the lawsuit. In deciding on de Mino’s First Amendment claim, the court looked primarily to two tests used to analyze such claims in the education context.

Under the Perry test (Perry Educ. Assn v. Perry Local Educators’ Assn., 460 U.S. 37 (1983)), educational authorities may reserve an internal mail system for its intended purposes, so long as there is no discrimination on the basis of viewpoint and the limitations imposed are reasonable in light of the purpose of the forum. Under the Tinker test, (Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969)), teacher communications may be suppressed only when the expression or its method of exercise materially and substantially interferes with the activities or discipline of the school.

In this case, the court held that the restrictions on de Mino’s e-mail account satisfied these tests. The limited duration of adjunct accounts, as well as the spam filters and storage limits were not content- or viewpoint-based restrictions, and were reasonable in light of the need to preserve the integrity of the IT system. Doing away with such restrictions (and allowing open access to spam and unlimited data storage) would have been a substantial interference with the activities of the school.

Faculty Rights Coalition v. Shahrokhi, 2005 WL 1657116 (S.D.Tex., July 13, 2005).