Virginia professors win their case
Federal judge rules state Internet law unconstitutional
VIRGINIA — A federal judge struck down a Virginia law in February that barred state employees from using state-owned computers to access sexually explicit materials on the Internet.
The court cited First Amendment free speech principles as the reason why the law should be invalidated.
“Moreover, the Act restricts free speech far beyond what is necessary to advance the interests it [intends] to address,” Judge Leonie M. Brinkema wrote in her opinion.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, who defended the law in court, objected to this notion.
“We disagree that the First Amendment right to free speech would in any way be harmed or stifled by Virginia law, which reflects the will of the General Assembly and the citizens of our Commonwealth,” he said in a statement.
He went on to say the decision will undermine the “ability of the Commonwealth to supervise the conduct of its employees.”
The law was enacted to make sure state employees do not “goof off” while at work, according to ACLU attorney Mary Bauer.
Brinkema said in her opinion that the law was underinclusive for this purpose.
“Thus, the Act ignores the limitless variety of disruptive computer activities unrelated to viewing sexually explicit material, including, but not limited to, accessing on-line video games, news services, stock quotes and financial information, chat rooms, and shopping sites,” she wrote. “Nor does the Act address the sending and receiving of e-mail on non-work-related topics.”
“This had nothing to do with workplace efficiency and everything to do with censoring legitimate discourse about subjects of human sexuality in art, literature, politics, history, science and many other fields,” said Marjorie Heins, ACLU national staff attorney who argued the case before Brinkema.
Brinkema also said that the law was overinclusive because it restricts access to those who need to use sexually explicit sites.
“By categorically restricting all computer use involving sexually explicit material, the Act interferes with countless work-related endeavors by state employees dealing with sexuality and the human body,” she wrote. “[S]ome of these are academic in nature, and deal with sexual themes in art, literature, history, and philosophy.”
Brinkema explained that the law does not apply to public college and university students. Students were allowed access to these sites while professors must ask for permission.
One of the plaintiffs, Virginia Commonwealth Professor Melvin Urofsky, had originally planned for a mass communications law class to research Web sites in possible violation of the Communications Decency Act, the federal law regulating indecent material on the Internet that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional last year. However, he pulled the assignment because he was afraid it would violate the law and he would not be able to track his student’s research.
Brinkema said the most troubling aspect of the law is that it appeared to be intended to discourage discussion of sexual topics because the state disagrees with them.
“The Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may not use its authority over public employees for such a purpose,” she wrote.
Earley disagrees. He says that it is the taxpayers who want the law, not the government.
“The issue in this case is very simple: the taxpayers in Virginia should not be forced to pay for the use of state computers — on state time — by state employees for downloading pornography off the Internet,” he said in a statement.
George Mason English and cultural studies Professor Paul Smith also experienced the effects of the law in his research.
He 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.
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of six professors from Virginia Commonwealth University, George Mason University, Blue Ridge Community College, Old Dominion University and the College of William and Mary.
Earley said the state would appeal the decision.
reports, Spring 1998