US Supreme Court refuses to hear university spam case

The U.S. Supreme Court this week refused to hear an appeal of a case by an Austin, Texas online dating service that claimed it had a First Amendment right to send unsolicited e-mails through the University of Texas's computer system.

The decision lets stand an Aug. 2, 2005 ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, which said the school did not violate the constitutional rights of White Buffalo Ventures when it blocked nearly 60,000 unsolicited e-mail messages the company sent to the university in 2003.

The Circuit Court also ruled that the U.S. Can-Spam Act of 2003 does not supersede the school's own antispam policies, which allow administrators to block unsolicited commercial e-mails when they receive complaints about them. And the court said that the school had no obligation to offer e-mail spammers the free use of its state-owned computer resources for advertising.

White Buffalo, which operates Longhornsingles.com, had argued that the e-mails it sent did not violate federal antispam laws and contended that the university's antispam policy did not override the Can-Spam Act, which prohibits fraudulent, abusive and deceptive commercial e-mail, according to court documents. All parties agreed that White Buffalo's e-mails were not false or fraudulent. The online dating service also argued that the school violated its first amendment right to free speech by blocking the e-mails.

According to court documents, the case began in February 2003 when White Buffalo submitted a Public Information Act request seeking all "non-confidential, non-exempt e-mail addresses" held by the University of Texas, which responded by disclosing all qualifying e-mail addresses.

In April 2003, White Buffalo began sending legal commercial spam to targeted members of the university community. Shortly thereafter, the school received several complaints regarding unsolicited e-mail blasts from White Buffalo. The school investigated and determined that White Buffalo had indeed sent unsolicited e-mails to tens of thousands of the university's e-mail account holders. At that point, the school issued a cease-and-desist letter.

White Buffalo refused to comply, so the university blocked all e-mail from the company. White Buffalo then obtained a temporary restraining order in state court, which school officials appealed in U.S. District Court. After a hearing in May 2003, the court denied the injunction and eventually granted the university's summary judgment motion. That ultimately prompted White Buffalo's, appeal to the Circuit Court.

"I am pleased the [Supreme] Court showed its wisdom in deferring to the sound legal decisions issued by the courts in favor of our client," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who represented the university, said in a statement. "The University of Texas -- and indeed every public university -- should always be afforded the right to safeguard its resources by blocking a flood of unwanted e-mail spam."

White Buffalo officials could not be reached for comment.

This decision is a victory against spammers, said John Mozena, spokesman for the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail. "It's been a pretty settled concept in law for about a decade that there is not a First Amendment right to spam," he said. "This just further solidifies the argument that the antispam community has been making successfully for years -- that restrictions on spam are restrictions on the method of speech as opposed to the content of speech and the First Amendment has been found by the courts primarily to protect the content and not the methodology."

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Linda Rosencrance

Computerworld
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