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I realize that this is a very atypical question for this forum. To be frank, I'm not sure if this is the right place to ask. But it is part of my academic life, so I'm going to give it a try.

In the beginning of Fall 2020, our university (in the U.S.) created a mailing list and automatically subscribed the entire university community to it. It comes from a certain non-academic unit within the university, newly created to address certain social issues both within the university and in the wider community. Now, there's nothing abnormal about that. Of course, a university is a social organization, and there are multiple non-academic facets in its life. Our university has many such mailing lists on various academic and non-academic topics, which can be crucially important for everyone (payroll) or optional for interested persons only (university sports).

But one thing makes this new mailing list different: it seems to be impossible to unsubscribe from. I believe the university has a uniform mailing list platform for many of its newsletters, including this one. There's an unsubscribe link at the bottom of these emails. Clicking the link takes you to a subscription profile page. There's an option to unsubscribe from the publication at the bottom of the profile page. I checked the unsubscribe box months ago... and it had no effect whatsoever. The messages keep coming despite my unsubscribed status.

This was never an issue with any other mailing lists that used the same platform and that I was able to unsubscribe from (say, I'm not interested in sports, so I unsubscribed from that one). So my question is:

Are there any legal and/or ethical regulations and/or guidelines for non-commercial mailing lists within an organization, in particular within an academic organization?

I tried searching online. Clearly, CAN-SPAM doesn't apply here, because this is a non-commercial setting.

EDIT: In response to a comment below. Yes, I thought that it might be a bug. I emailed the university tech support about a month ago. They said that they don't know of an immediate source of the issue, and promised to escalate my request to a higher-level email team... and now it's been a month, and I haven't heard back from then again.

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    If there is an unsubscribe button present that does not work correctly, are you sure it is not simply a bug in their system? Perhaps you could check with the IT department / whoever manages it?
    – GoodDeeds
    Jan 26, 2021 at 15:17
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    Most mail programs have a filter function. If you cannot unsubscribe, you can direct the mails to an archive or to autotrash (but be careful with the latter, perhaps better into the spam, so you can still review it for 30 days). Jan 26, 2021 at 15:20
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    This is more of a rant than a question. Do you want to sue the university because they want you to get emails that they think are important enough to deny you the ability to avoid them? I think that any set of regulations would (and should) have exceptions for such things. The people who most need to see some things are the ones who are most likely to avoid them.
    – Buffy
    Jan 26, 2021 at 16:01
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    That's a really weird thing to say about your school email account. They're providing it to you as part of your affiliation with the university. They can kinda send you whatever they want. If you don't like it, quit and stop using that email account.
    – user133933
    Jan 26, 2021 at 17:42
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    Try rephrasing this as "can my employer send emails to my work email account even if I don't want them". I believe that the answer should then be obvious.
    – user133933
    Jan 26, 2021 at 21:44

3 Answers 3

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Are there any legal and/or ethical regulations and/or guidelines for non-commercial mailing lists within an organization, in particular within an academic organization?

I’ll address the ethical angle. University administrators make many decisions every day that affect the lives of the thousands (for a typical large institution) of people belonging to the university community. One of those decisions involves deciding which information to send out as emails that go into everyone’s inboxes and that cannot be opted out of. And with any such decision that affects such a large number of people, it is impossible to make a perfect decision that pleases everyone and also helps achieve whatever other visionary, big-picture ideas the administrator in question sees it as their role to advance. There is always a trade-off involving the knowledge that an email will represent yet another small annoyance and nominal waste of time in some people’s workday.

The point is that making such a decision to prevent people from opting out of certain emails is generally ethical if it is done in good faith by an administrator who believes the email is doing enough good to justify the small negative cost it incurs. They don’t have to be objectively correct in that assessment in order for the decision to be ethical, and typically for any specific email some people will disagree and will think the topic of the email is not relevant or interesting to them. But unless the administrator is deliberately, knowingly sending out emails that they know are useless spam, there is no ethical problem here.

P.S. We all receive these sorts of emails regularly, so I feel your pain. If it’s any consolation, I think the situation is much worse in the corporate world...

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It's normal for universities to require all staff and all students to be on a mailing list. This is how university leadership attempts to communicate what it is doing to everyone.

It would be odd if alumni cannot unsubscribe.

I think you will find the university is actually sending emails to email accounts it owns. There will be no regulations restricting that.

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Although several comments alluded to this point, and actual laws (so not necessarily about ethics per se) surely vary from region to region, I have the impression (especially in my experience in the U.S.) that if the email account is "owned" by your employer, created fundamentally for your use as an employee, even if there are some privacy assurances, ... some emails will not be block-able.

I've had that experience in my univ, where a considerable amount of PR/spam/propaganda/informational [sic] email is sent from univ offices, and cannot be blocked by any of several devices.

Annoying, but... hard to be tooooo resentful if the univ is paying for the account, and wants to be certain that they can send certain messages. Probably they are not interested in my opinion of the value or interest of the messages. :)

So, no, not unethical. I'd wager legal everywhere. Annoying, yes. Like many things one's employer may impose, although hopefully one has benefits worth the cost.

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