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Columbia University Walks Back Anti-WikiLeaks Advice

First Posted: 12/06/10 02:51 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:15 PM ET

Columbia

WASHINGTON -- Days after Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) sparked national ire by advising students not to discuss WikiLeaks on Facebook or Twitter, the school is walking back its remarks and embracing free speech.

In an email to students last week, SIPA's Office of Career Services warned students that tweeting or posting about WikiLeaks on Facebook could endanger their job prospects with the federal government, according to an alumnus working at the U.S. State Department.

"[The alumnus] recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter," the Office of Career Services advised students in an email obtained last week by The Huffington Post. "Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government."

Indignant Americans took to Twitter last week to air their reactions to the prestigious institution's chilling warning.

Over at the State Department, spokesman Philip Crowley has denied any federal involvement in the school's guidance.

"This is not true," he wrote in an email. "We have instructed State Department employees not to access the WikiLeaks site and download posted documents using an unclassified network since these documents are still classified. We condemn what Mr. Assange is doing, but have given no advice to anyone beyond the State Department to my knowledge."

Now Wired's Sam Gustin reports that SIPA's Dean, John H. Coatsworth, is reversing the advice issued to students last week, reaffirming the school's commitment to freedom of speech.

"Freedom of information and expression is a core value of our institution. Thus, SIPA's position is that students have a right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena that they deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens, and to do so without fear of adverse consequences," he said in an email obtained by HuffPost.

Though the disclosure of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables detailing some of the country's most closely guarded secrets has received a mixed response, the move to silence public debate on the issue represents uncharted new territory in the federal government's effort to put a stop to the leaks.

Douglas Almond, an associate professor of International and Public Affairs and Economics, told HuffPost that while students should not be discriminated against for following the WikiLeak conversation, aspiring diplomats may appreciate being notified about the issue.

"If I were a SIPA student considering a career in government, as many are, I'd want to to be made aware of this potential issue," said Almond, who's currently on leave at Cornell University. "That said, in my opinion it would be silly for the government to screen future job applicants based on whether they had read these leaked cables or their summaries in the press."

Read the original email from SIPA's Office of Career Services.

From: Office of Career Services Date: Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 3:26 PM Subject: Wikileaks - Advice from an alum To: "Office of Career Services (OCS)"

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

Regards,
Office of Career Services

Below is the response from SIPA's dean, reversing the school's position:

Here is Coatsworth's more recent

December 6, 2010

Dear SIPA Community,

Last Tuesday, SIPA's Office of Career Services received a call from a former student currently employed by the U.S. Department of State who pointed out that the U.S. government documents released during the past few months through WikiLeaks are still considered classified. The caller suggested that students who will be applying for federal jobs that require background checks avoid posting links to these documents or making comments about them on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter.

OCS emailed this cautionary suggestion to students, as it has done many times with other information that could be helpful in seeking employment after graduation. We know that many students today share a great deal about their lives online and that employers may use that information when evaluating their candidacy. Subsequent news stories have indicated that the Department of State has issued guidelines for its own employees, but has not issued any guidelines for prospective employees.

Freedom of information and expression is a core value of our institution. Thus, SIPA's position is that students have a right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena that they deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens, and to do so without fear of adverse consequences. The WikiLeaks documents are accessible to SIPA students (and everyone else) from a wide variety of respected sources, as are multiple means of discussion and debate both in and outside of the classroom.

Should the U.S. Department of State issue any guidelines relating to the WikiLeaks documents for prospective employees, SIPA will make them available immediately.

Sincerely,
John H. Coatsworth
Dean

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