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Is email a dirty word?

If you're thinking about sending an e-mail to your favorite city councilor any time soon, be advised not to use the wrong words Ñ or your message won't get through the city's computer system.

This odd little bit of governmental lore came to light this week when a woman involved in a landlord-tenant dispute Ñ we'll call her Ms. X Ñ e-mailed the office of Commissioner Erik Sten, only to receive a note that her e-mail had been 'quarantined and deleted' because it 'violated a city of Portland content filter code.'

Now what, you may ask, is a 'city of Portland content filter code'? And while we're on the subject, what business does the city have in quarantining and deleting messages intended for our elected officials in the first place?

Well, as it turns out, there's really nothing sinister about the practice, according to Art Alexander of the city's Bureau of Information Technology division.

Yes, a filter has indeed been installed on the city's e-mail system. But that's only to weed out all the spam Ñ those electronic junk mail messages that bedevil all private citizens who have e-mail accounts.

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Of course, by now most of us have learned that if you want to get rid of unwanted e-mail messages, spam or otherwise, all you really have to do is press the delete button. But you can see how the Bureau of Information Technology might not want fellow public servants Ñ whose time is, after all, extremely valuable Ñ to have to deal with such petty details.

In fact, it all makes perfect sense the way Mr. Alexander explains it. Except that Ms. X's message was not commercial junk mail at all but a complaint Ñwhether well-founded or not, it doesn't matter Ñ from a private citizen. So why was it filtered out?

'Did she use the word 'f***ing'?' asks Mr. Alexander, coming right to the point.

Why, yes, she did. In the course of describing the dispute in which she was involved, Ms. X related Ñ perhaps in hopes of eliciting the commissioner's sympathy Ñ that someone had called her a 'f***ing b****.'

'Well, that explains it,' Mr. Alexander says. 'The computer system is set up to reject all messages that contain the word 'f***ing.' That's to eliminate pornographic spam.'

Now, as it happens, except for the words in quotation marks, there was nothing remotely pornographic about Ms. X's message. Next time maybe she'll know to use meaningless characters the way I have, and the computer will let her message go through.

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But since this seems to be the order of the day, what about the other words that are currently flagged by the city's computers?

The following is a partial list of those that Mr. Alexander was kind enough to send me. Are you ready?

Credit repair, debt consolidation, farmyard action, enhance your, save up to, opt-in, opt-out, marketing partner, insider secrets, offer may vary, direct marketing and penis size. Also, these words appearing within five characters of one another: free and membership, Viagra and email, free and phone, free and sex, partner and website, banned and CD, and webcam and chat.

Do not, therefore, expect that an e-mail message, expressing your deeply held belief that 'the city should opt out of the planned OHSU tram line because the City Council is once again acting as little more than a marketing partner for developers who want only to enhance your free phone privileges' will ever get through to its intended audience at City Hall.

Even if you're dead-on, it's just not going to happen.

Contact Phil Stanford by phone at 503-546-5166 or by unfilterede-mail at pstanford@portlandtribune.com.