Academic Freedom and the Internet

By Heins, Marjorie | Academe, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and the Internet


Heins, Marjorie, Academe


The University is a traditional sphere of free expression, fundamental to the functioning of our society.

-U.S Supreme Court, Rust v. Sullican (1991)

Academic freedom . . . is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely the teachers concerned.

-U.S. Supreme Court, Keyishian v. Board of Regents(1967)

IN THE SUMMER OF 1996, the commonwealth of Virginia enacted a law unique in the annals of censorship. Responding no doubt to political anxieties created by the seemingly uncontrollable new medium of the Internet, the Virginia legislators voted to prohibit commonwealth employees-with the conspicuous exception of the state police-from using computers owned or leased by the state to "access, download, print, or store" any communications "having sexually explicit content." The law applied to all of the commonwealth's approximately 101,000 employees, including thousands of professors, instructors, librarians, and research assistants at Virginia's 39 public colleges and universities.

The Virginia law had an important caveat. Any employee could seek administrative approval to access or publish "sexual" information "in conjunction with a bona fide, agency-approved research project or other agency-approved undertaking." The law did not specify how such approval was to be sought or obtained, who the decision makers were to be, by what standards they were to decide whether employees' projects were bona fide, or whether there would be an appeal process for those whose requests were denied. In Urofsky v. Allen, the constitutional challenge to the law that six state-employed professors brought in 1997, the government claimed that the provision for agency approval eliminated any possible First Amendment problem. Surely, said the commonwealth's attorneys, all legitimate academic research projects would be approved. Asking permission in advance to speak, write, read, or conduct research on state computers was really no different from seeking other sorts of administrative approval-for example, to use a government car.

The plaintiffs, of course, disagreed. They argued that academic freedom demanded that their intellectual inquiries, writings, and communications with colleagues-all now taking place largely onlinenot be subject to prior administrative review and possible disapproval. The infringement of intellectual autonomy would be obvious, they said, if prior approval were required before they could read books with "sexually explicit" content in the university library, and the Internet today is a vast worldwide library. Moreover, they pointed to the danger that political pressures might be brought to bear on university administrators by politicians hostile to one or another scholarly viewpoint. Finally, the plaintiffs asserted, it is not even possible in many instances to predict when one might have an academic need for sexually explicit art, literature, social science data, or health information, or when one might receive a sexually explicit electronic-mail message from a colleague containing, perhaps, a newly discovered masterpiece of erotic poetry, a reproduction of a sumptuous Titian nude, or excerpts from a new psychological study of sexual dysfunction.

Scholarship in Cyberspace

UROFSKY V ALLEN DRAMATIZED BOTH THE TREMENDOUS intellectual potential of the Internet and the threat to academic freedom posed by governmental attempts to regulate it. Even before the World Wide Web emerged as a global library, computer communications through e-mail, discussion groups, bulletin boards, and subscription mailing lists, or Listservs, enabled scholars to communicate about their work not only with students and members of the public but with colleagues around the world. Meanwhile, technologies like gopher and file-transfer protocol, precursors to the Web, made large quantities of research material available in a manner that just a decade before would have been inconceivable to all but the most prophetic of computer wizards.

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