Professors take Virginia Internet law to court





VIRGINIA — Six Virginia university professors have joined the American Civil Liberties Union to fight a new law that bans state employees from accessing sexually explicit material on the state-owned Internet providers.

Professors from schools including George Mason University, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth filed the lawsuit in May with a U.S. district court in Alexandria.

George Mason English and cultural studies Professor Paul Smith is included in the lawsuit and has already experienced the effects of the law.

Smith downloaded pictures for a cultural studies class from Web sites that were considered sexually explicit, and the university forced him to remove the material from his Web site. Smith said he was going to use the material for a class discussion on Internet regulation of pornography.

“I was about to write a commentary on them about the significance of [the downloaded material] or lack thereof,” Smith said.

But he was stopped short of his plan. Under the law, professors such as Smith that are found in violation may even lose their jobs.

According to ACLU attorney Mary Bauer, the law took effect last July and one reason it was introduced was to keep state employees from “goofing off” while at work.

“One of their reasons [legislators] had is that they want to stop people from wasting time,” Professor Smith said. “And [universities] see themselves in a position to enforce the law.”

The result, Smith said, is professors being kept from information that could be used in their teaching. According to the ACLU, material that could be deemed sexually explicit under the law includes Web sites with literary works from D.H. Lawrence, Allen Ginsburg and Walt Whitman.

Virginia Commonwealth Professor Melvin Urofsky had originally planned for a mass communications law class to research Web sites in possible violation of the now-unconstitutional Communications Decency Act. But Urofsky pulled the assignment for fear it would violate the Virginia law.

Virginia Gov. George Allen has been named defendant in the case, and spokesman for the governor Greg Crist said Allen stands by the law.

“The governor just feels that college professors don’t need pornography to teach students,” Crist said.

But Bauer called the law “overly broad,” because it keeps university professors from material they may need.

The law contains the provision that the only way to obtain the information is with permission and when working on “a bona fide, agency-approved research project or other agency-approved undertaking.”

“There are no guidelines,” Smith said about the provision. “It doesn’t say what is acceptable, who decides — it’s totally vague.”

The professors’ complaint states that there are no established “regulations regarding the process or standards for approval.”

Smith said that professors are stuck having to get their work approved, and the law does not even tell them how to do it.


Fall 1997, reports