Internet porn is focus of policy

Heather Fors

Stripping the Internet of pornography is the focus of a major debate heating up institutions around the country. The University is not immune.
Though supporters of the 1996 Communications Decency Act failed in their attempt to clean up the World Wide Web, University officials hope to tidy up what students view in college computer labs via an access policy.
While the number of recorded violations thus far appear to be low, other statistics show frequent University pornographic site use.
In the last few years there have been about 25 incidents of people caught viewing pornography and other offensive material in the public labs, said Jerry Larson, computer facilities manager for the University’s Academic Computing department. There has been only one repeat offender.
Attendants in the seven public labs throughout the Twin Cities campus report between two and eight incidents each quarter. However, pornography has become an issue in the labs only in the last few years, Larson said.
The policies in closely monitored public labs, such as those in the Eddy Hall Annex, Folwell and Lind halls and the Hubert H. Humphrey Center, restrict the viewing and printing of “offensive” material on lab computers.
Penalties for getting caught range from receiving a verbal warning to losing computer privileges. Larson said those who repeatedly challenge policy are closely monitored.
But officials said the overall number of offenses is low.
Yet in 1996, Penthouse magazine reported that University account-holders led the nation in the number of hits on their Internet site. At the time, Penthouse recorded as many as 8,751 hits within a one-month period.
The University’s Computer Facilities access rules posted in the labs state, “Those who use the University’s Computer Facilities must refrain from the generation, display or printing of offensive material as covered by the University’s policy on equal opportunity and non-discrimination, including sexually, racially offensive or harassing materials.”
But this policy is not supported by everyone.
Some say these restrictions are more than just words on a page — they are a violation of students’ constitutional rights.
“That’s unconstitutional. It sounds like a hate speech code,” said Nadine Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union. A hate speech code is one that inhibits the use of any sort of speech that might offend others.
Strossen explained that the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin recently lost lawsuits for establishing codes similar to the University’s computer facilities access rules.
Restricting students’ speech or other actions at a public institution because others might be offended is censorship, Strossen said. Similarly, flag burning is offensive to some but is still protected by the Constitution, she said.
Because the Internet is still relatively new, the definition of Web harassment remains undetermined, and some say the University’s policy is not specific in this regard.
“It’s not harassing if you’re not shoving it in someone’s face,” Strossen said.
However, others say the distinction between freedom of speech and harassment on a college campus lies more in whether the institution is funded by the government, like the University.
Ann Kappler, a partner in Jenner & Block, the law firm in Washington D.C. that litigated the challenge to the Communications Decency Act, said private colleges can restrict students’ freedom of speech because they don’t receive funding from the government. These schools are not restricted by the Constitution in the same way public institutions are.
However, at a government-funded institution, such restrictions are seen by some as an invasion of one’s speech freedom. Kappler said she is ambivalent about who would win a law suit.
“The problem is none of this stuff has been worked out in court,” Kappler said. In the courtroom, students’ right to view pornography in public labs is not a cut-and-dry issue, she said.
But Strossen said she thinks the courts would side with the students in this particular case because the rules are vague.
And while Larson said the students could access offensive material in the lab for classes, this is not directly stated in the policy. This exception makes it appear as though the University is admitting the policy is too broad, Strossen said.
Strossen added that these exceptions could strengthen a court case against the University’s policy. “This is a slam-dunk winner for anyone who would want to use it,” she said.
Although some students are opposed to the lab restrictions because of their broadness and invasion of students’ freedom of speech, they also understand the desire to keep others from being offended.
Mark Cenite, a graduate student in the school of journalism, said easily interpreted graphics which can be viewed from a distance are not acceptable in a lab because others could be offended.
But he says offensive text should not be restricted. “Not only do I think it would be unconstitutional, I’d be opposed to the paternalism involved,” he said.
But other students say these restrictions are appropriate for the labs because it is a public place. Because the University is an educational institution, it is appropriate for labs to enforce their access rules, said Viet Tong, a University student who frequents the labs. “You don’t see Playboys or Penthouses in the libraries,” Tong said. “It doesn’t have to be a strict, anal enforcement, just some control.”
There are ways the labs could make the computers less restrictive while still protecting others from being offended. Strossen said the code would be constitutional if the University’s rules were less broad and perhaps specified a mutual time, place and manner under which to display possibly offensive or harassing matter. She added that as long as others who need the computers for educational purposes were not prohibited from using the computers, there would be no problem.
Another solution could be to implement screen filters which would not allow people to see the screen unless seated directly in front of it. Investing in one of the many software programs recently developed to guard against accessing pornographic sites is another option.
But Larson said the security measures taken by the lab attendants have worked well and there really isn’t a need for added software. Their measures consist of regular checks of lab users and reporting on any questionable behavior. “To try to put additional layers of software sometimes creates more problems than it solves,” Larson said.
“I think most people have the sense enough not to do it here. If they like that sort of stuff they’d do it at home,” said Torrey Swanson, a student lab attendant at Eddy Hall Annex Computer Lab. “I don’t see it as a problem, but the potential is there.”