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High Court Rebuffs Professors' Challenge to a Virginia Law on Internet Use (fwd)
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Tuesday, January 9, 2001
High Court Rebuffs Professors' Challenge to a Virginia Law on
By ANDREA L. FOSTER
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a
challenge to a Virginia law that bars state employees from
viewing sexually explicit material over the Internet using
state-owned computers. Six professors had asked the court to
consider the case, arguing that the law violated professors'
The court's announcement leaves standing the June 23 ruling by
the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond,
which upheld the Virginia law. The state argues that the law
prevents employees from wasting time and from creating
sexually hostile workplaces. The appeals court's decision
attracted attention in part because it held that academic
freedom rests with the institution, not with individual
The lead lawyer for the professors, Marjorie Heins, called the
court's decision an "appalling" affront to academic freedom,
"which is a fundamental component of First Amendment free
Courts have typically allowed professors total freedom in
research and writing, Ms. Heins added. "This is a case in
which the state is intervening not only in the intellectual
work of professors, but in the way public universities
organize their intellectual life."
The lead plaintiff in the case was Melvin I. Urofsky, a
constitutional historian at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and
supported by the American Association of University
Professors, he said he questioned the Virginia law after he
was unable to assign an Internet research project to his
students. He wanted them to find out how easy it was to access
sexually explicit material over the Internet so they could
judge for themselves whether the Communications Decency Act
was necessary, he said.
Mr. Urofsky said he does not expect the court's decision to
impede the work of professors since Virginia colleges,
including Virginia Commonwealth, are largely ignoring the law
in question. Under the law, state employees can view sexual
material on work computers only with prior approval from
Furthermore, legal experts say the reach of the Virginia law
has been shortened since the Virginia General Assembly amended
it to more narrowly define "sexually explicit content" as
"lascivious" descriptions or pictures.
The issue now, say professors, is no longer the statute but
what they view as the Fourth Circuit's onerous and aberrant
interpretation of academic freedom.
In addition to arguing that individual professors are not
granted academic freedom, the court said that professors'
right to speak on matters of public concern did not include
speaking about their employment.
"Looking ahead, we need to reeducate those judges who seemed
so unsympathetic to academic-freedom concerns," said Robert
O'Neil, a law professor at the University of Virginia who is
director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of
Free Expression. The Charlottesville-based group and the
A.A.U.P. jointly filed a brief before the Supreme Court in
support of the professors.
David Rabban, general counsel of the A.A.U.P., said: "I would
hope that in the future, Fourth Circuit decisions would
recognize individual academic freedom, and that speech by
employees on matters of their employment could be of public
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