Shortly after I posted this, the State of Minnesota changed its mind, as reported here. Nice to know that officialdom can change its mind in the face of the blazingly obvious.
In a sign of just how deeply rooted cultural prejudices against free culture truly are, the State of Minnesota has banned Coursera, the free online course website, from offering its courses to Minnesota citizens. As reported in Slate magazine (itself drawn from the Chronicle of Higher Education), “Free Online Education Illegal in Minnesota.” Coursera is a website that partners with Stanford, Columbia, the University of Michigan and other top universities around the world to offer some of their courses online for free.
Why is this so objectionable to the state of Minnesota? Technically, the state wants to enforce its right to approve anyone that offers educational instruction within its borders. It is especially concerned with preventing fly-by-night schools from bilking people with worthless degrees.
But if the courses offered are for free, and if no degrees are being offered, what’s the problem? The state official in charge of enforcing the law told the Slate reporter that Minnesota residents could be wasting their time by taking the courses. So it's come to this: state regulators are worried about our frittering away our time on free courses like “Principles of Macroeconomics” and “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry.”
One only wishes that the state were as aggressive in rooting out predatory market activities -- say, for-profit schools that actually are bilking veterans and lower-income young people – as they are in attacking free online content. Minnesota's hostility to Coursera is virtually unenforceable in any case. Does it plan to start forcing ISPs to filter out Coursera web content the way that the Saudis block pornography and China blocks political dissent?
This whole contretemps echoes the reactions that entrenched market incumbents have when non-market, commons-based innovators enter the scene. The market-state duopoly lashes out at the upstarts and attempts to use the powers of law to stifle them. For me, it just points out the need, once again, to develop more serious forms of commons-based law so that commons-based alternatives can flourish without the fear of arbitrary state harassment on behalf of the dominant market forms.