The School of International and Public Affairs warned students on Friday to avoid tweets, Facebook comments, or other posts about the recently released WikiLeaks documents.
In an email sent out to SIPA students, the Office of Career Services said that an alumnus from the U.S. State Department recommended against posting links to or making comments on social media sites about WikiLeaks, a controversial website that releases government information. The site has received attention most recently due to a leak of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables.
The email from SIPA—forwarded to Spectator and also posted on a blog called The Arabist last Thursday—said that the WikiLeaks documents are still considered classified and that posts about them could hurt students’ chances of getting jobs in the federal government.
Representatives from SIPA and the OCS did not respond to requests for comment this weekend.
Although the email stated that the advice came from an alumnus, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told The Huffington Post that he has no knowledge of this advice being given to individuals outside the State Department.
On campus, this recent incident—which has received media attention from multiple major news outlets—has sparked debate about the ethics of studying international politics.
“Note to the U.S. government: We know this is bad for you. Don’t make it worse by criminalizing everyone who studies international politics,” Gary Sick, senior research scholar at SIPA’s Middle East Institute and an adjunct professor of international and public affairs, said in an email.
“The culprit is the government security system that utterly collapsed and permitted this unprecedented breach. The answer is to fix that system, not to criminalize those who merely receive the information in their inboxes,” Sick said.
Rohini Haar, a student at the Mailman School of Public Health, said that the incident is disturbing. In one class on human rights abuses, she said, “We examined the disparities between the Iraqi body counts released on WikiLeaks and the Iraq war logs,” But she added, “Due to the recent email, many students in the class are worried whether this project might hurt them in the future.”
Despite concerns over free speech, some students said that the Office of Career Services should not be vilified for giving this advice.
“They were simply doing their job—imparting advice on how to strengthen our candidacy for a State Department or other governmental job,” Stephen Lee, SIPA ’12, said. “If you read the email, they say they are simply passing along information. OCS is not telling us how to think.”
He added, “I do not think this is an example of suppressing speech. They merely recommend us to keep our Facebook profiles clean.”
Jamal Greene, associate professor of law, said that Columbia is within its rights. “It is not constitutionally problematic for a private university to make students aware of the negative consequences of their speech acts. Columbia is not bound by the First Amendment since it is not a state actor,” he said in an email.
Greene, though, said that the email does leave some unanswered questions for the State Department if it did actually pass along the message—raising the possibility that “the State Department might be violating the First Amendment by threatening prospective employees not to exercise their free speech rights.”
Vincent Blasi, law professor of civil liberties, said that he would not have forwarded the message along if he ran the career services office.
“In a political system that embraces the freedom of speech, the federal government ought not to take into account in making hiring decisions whether a job applicant passed on or responded to once-classified information that has already been published,” he said in an email.
Although Sick said that he was in no position to say whether students should worry about consequences, he added that he does think it would be ridiculous for the government to punish students.
“If the USG sets about creating a database composed of all offenders on handling WikiLeaks, then they have either gone slightly crazy or else having nothing better to do with their time,” he said.
Sammy Roth contributed reporting.