Ramifications of Internet Censorship by Institutions: What Is Legal, What Is Expected, What Is Permissible

By Spevak, Jacqueline M. | College Student Affairs Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Ramifications of Internet Censorship by Institutions: What Is Legal, What Is Expected, What Is Permissible


Spevak, Jacqueline M., College Student Affairs Journal


Colleges and universities are faced with the challenge of drawing a fine line between censorship and freedom of speech. With new technology and as students continue to push the limits of computer usage, higher education administrators are being forced to take a stand on issues regarding misuse of campus computer resources and facilities. Education is the key to helping others better understand that, as with any resource, it is also possible to misuse and abuse the Internet.

Today, almost every college student has had experience with the Internet. This may be especially true since the typical college or university provides computer labs for student use and some institutions even offer Ethernet connections in residence halls, as well as fraternity and sorority houses (Jackson, 1994). Students know how to locate just about anything on the Internetdirections, research information, spring break locations, internet-relay chat lines, and pornography. There appear to be no boundaries, as new items are constantly being added to the Internet.

In the recent whirlwind of technological breakthroughs, administrators have begun to take a closer look at how some students are utilizing their computer skills. Recently, institutions have been faced with situations of misuse of campus computer facilities and resources. Examples of university computer violations include breaching computer security, releasing passwords or forms of confidential information, using computers for personal or commercial gain, forging mail or postings, creating a computer malfunction or interrupting operations, injecting a virus into a system, "mail bombs," copyright infringements, harassment, and computer piracy.

One of the most controversial topics in the computer field is censorship. According to Paterson (in press):

Virtually every university that permits students to establish a home page or provides Internet access has some material on its servers that is offensive. The offensive material is likely to include nude images; derogatory comments about race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation; and numerous other written and graphic displays.

So what does this mean for colleges and universities? Should administrators ignore what students are posting on campus servers? Not according to certain state or community standards regarding obscenity. Although some precedence has been set to assist institutions in determining what does and does not meet the legal standards of obscene, questions exist regarding how to regulate material without violating a student's First Amendment rights. Now, with the Communications Decency Act of 1996, (part of the Telecommunications Act) struck down and deemed unconstitutional (Aguilar & Whitmer, 1996), universities and colleges still do not have any legal guidelines for addressing all the new computer issues.

One of the major cases utilized in determining obscenity is Miller v. California (1973). The case provided a more detailed definition of obscenity, compared to the broad definition of "prurient interest" initially used in the 1957 case of Roth v. U.S. (Obscene and Indecent Material, 1995). According to the ruling in Miller v. California, obscene materials are not protected by the First Amendment. The United States Supreme Court ruled that materials are obscene if:

1. The average person, applying contemporary community standards would find materials taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest.

2. The materials depict or describe in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically prohibited by applicable state law.

3. The materials, taken as a whole, lack artistic, literary, political, or scientific value (Miller v. California, 1973).

As students continue to put forth the concept of "free speech," institutions are becoming more cautious when deciding what information is not acceptable for posting on university servers. Colleges are caught in a predicament when it comes to regulating information. …

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