Issue: ROTC students are told not to access the WikiLeaks site

Instances of this issue:  In a Silicon Valley Mercury News op-ed, Professor Stephen Zunes, an activism-expert, describes a memo received by ROTC programs saying that ROTC students were not permitted to access the WikiLeaks web site.  He said that professors were "considering using WikiLeaks material" and therefore requiring students to access the WikiLeaks web site, and described the ROTC memo as infringing on academic freedom.  (The accounts grow in the re-telling; a Daily Princetonian column embelished "considering using WikiLeaks material" into "increasingly using information from the leaks in their curricula and assignments".)  The professor speculates that in the future ROTC students could be prohibited from "reading material critical of U.S. military actions in Iraq or Vietnam".  After publication of the op-ed, the professor provided some follow-up as related in a Ground Report blog item:

Professor Zunes has informed me that since publishing his editorial, he has received clarification from cadets and the ROTC. Essentially, Professor Zunes says that the U.S. Army Cadet Command has sought a more “liberal” interpretation of the policy.

In a meeting at Stanford on ROTC, the head of the Stanford ad hoc committee on ROTC was handed a copy of the Mercury News article by an anti-war activist and then held it up and said "What this looks like is, censorship could be imposed on a class that Stanford has a hand in managing ... This, I think, would be problematic."  The issue also came up during a Columbia University Senate meeting on ROTC.

Facts: ROTC students are not prohibited from reading accounts of WikiLeaks information, and are not even prohibited from accessing the WikiLeaks web site, but they are discouraged from accessing the WikiLeaks site since it might make it more difficult to get security clearance.

Although the federal government has put in place a ban on millions of federal employees accessing the WikiLeaks web site, the outright ban does not apply to ROTC students.  There is no restriction in the military on accessing "unclassified, publicly available news reports (and other unclassified material), as distinguished from access to the underlying classified documents available on public websites or otherwise in the public domain", as documented in a Department of Defense memo.  The memo also explains that no military personnel are allowed to access the classified documents using government computers or private computers that have remote access to government systems unless they have authorization to do so.  ROTC students are not banned from accessing the documents from private computers without remote access to government systems,   However, many commanders are advising the students that accessing the classified documents may inadvertently cause them practical issues when answering questions to obtain their initial security clearances.  But advice has not been standardized, and there is even one claim that "ROTC students are under the same set of orders as regular military personal".

A spokesman in the Public Affairs Office of the US Army Cadet Command summarized the situation as follows:

ROTC students may participate in classroom discussions related to issues where classified information is accessed via Wikileaks, or from publications that reference information from Wikileaks.

Cadets/Cadre direct research or access to Wikileaks is not recommended. Research for classified information in the public domain is prohibited on unclassified government computers. Student access to such information using school computers, personal computers, smart phones, iPads, etc.,) is not prohibited, only discouraged.

Cadets are not Soldiers and this guidance serves as a recommendation to safeguard the future of newly commissioned officers seeking security clearances.

The resulting dilemma for ROTC students is that university professors may require them to access classified information in a way that the federal government considers illegal, and doing so could cause the student problems in obtaining security clearance needed to serve as an officer.  There are a variety of ways to bridge this gap; for example, faculty could offer the option to students not to access classified documents, recognizing the impropriety of forcing students to do something that the federal government considers illegal.  Another way to bridge this gap is for the military to amend its advice to include language about an individual not having accessed classified documents "except when the document is available publicly and the individual was required to access the document as part of an academic course", or grant such authorization in individual cases.  A change in what the federal government considers illegal could also solve this issue.

In a related incident, Columbia University was contacted by a State Department official who suggested that students applying for federal jobs avoid commenting on documents released by WikiLeaks.  The university responded by advising students that they have a right to discuss publicly available material.  However, the Columbia situation differed in that it included situations in which students would read about material in newspapers, the students were not in contractual relationships with the federal government, and the university was free to ignore the position of the federal government on what is illegal.

A current company commander adds:

The executive branch, which is charged with carrying out the laws of the United States, has asserted that viewing wikileaks material constitutes a violation of law. Whether you disagree with this or not, compelling students to violate the law should still be impermissible. It should be stressed that it is perfectly valid to argue about whether the law is appropriate while still maintaining respect for the rule of law. And this sort of expression is appropriate and even encouraged within the ROTC among cadets and military professors.

For example I recently had a discussion with a couple of cadets and lieutenants who work for me about whether the federal government's interpretation of the law regarding wikileaks is appropriate or even correct. It was a very in-depth conversation with some very smart young officers. And this was not even in a classroom environment but a professional military one. Some disagreed with the interpretation, and felt perfectly free to express this to me (their commanding officer), as I would with my commanding officer.

This is analogous to an academic discussion on the legality and ethics of the prohibition of marijuana usage (a prohibition of which I am a staunch opponent I might add). As a professor I can require my students to discuss the appropriateness and legality of prohibiting the use and sale of marijuana. But I can't compel them to USE marijuana or to OBTAIN marijuana because in doing so I would be compelling them to break the law, notwithstanding the fact that I disagree vehemently with the law.

This is a great example of the sort of value an ROTC program can bring to the table. Cadets and military officers are intimately familiar with the needs and requirements of working with classified material. An ROTC cadet would be able to articulate with first-hand knowledge how the federal ruling on accessing wikileaks material might be problematic, and why for example such a heavy-handed application of the law might in-fact be unnecessary.

Stanford's Ad Hoc Committee on ROTC report notes:

ROTC students are “discouraged” by the military from reading materials on the WikiLeaks site because in so doing they may undermine their eligibility for future security clearance. But the discouragement is far from unique to ROTC students. Any student considering a career after graduation that would require security clearance would have good reason to avoid academic assignments that focus on classified documents. Yet no one could sensibly say that Stanford should be unwelcoming to all students who are contemplating careers in public service that would require security clearance.

If an instructor gives an ROTC student an alternative assignment in order to avoid reading classified documents, is the instructor not allowing the military to control curriculum? The question is comparable to asking whether accommodating a student who does not want to undertake vivisection in a class where it is required is ceding control of the curriculum to the animal rights movement. In both cases “no” seems the right answer to us. If a Stanford instructor assigns classified documents that have become public in their classes, students may ask for accommodation and the instructor may then make or deny such accommodation.

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