Appeals Court Limits Freedom of Virginia Faculty to Surf Web
THE CAUSE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM on the Internet suffered a disturbing setback in February. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Urofsky v. Gilmore, affirmed the constitutionality of a Virginia statute prohibiting state employees-including faculty in state-supported colleges and universities-from using state-owned computers to "access, download, print, or store any information infrastructure files or services having sexually explicit content," without prior approval by the users' supervisors. This outcome reverses a lower-court ruling that found in favor of six public university professors who claimed the law violated their First Amendment right to freedom of expression in teaching and research. The AAUP filed a friend-ofthe-court brief in the case.
In the May-June 1998 issue of Academe, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Marjorie Heins of the American Civil Liberties Union's Legal Foundation, pointed out that the lower court based its rejection of Virginia's argument on the Supreme Court's decision in Reno v. ACLU. In Reno the Court found that provisions of the federal Communications Decency Act violated the First Amendment. In its ruling, the Court extolled the Internet as a powerful new means for the exchange of ideas and information, holding that its free use deserves no less protection than that accorded more familiar forms of communication.
A central issue in the case challenging the Virginia law was its negative impact on a teaching strategy of Melvin Urofsky, professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. The passage of the law forced Urofsky to forgo asking his students to surf the Web for sexual material in order to assess the legitimacy of Congress's concerns when it passed the Communications Decency Act. …