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High Court Rebuffs Professors' Challenge to a Virginia Law on Internet Use (fwd)

  Tuesday, January 9, 2001

  High Court Rebuffs Professors' Challenge to a Virginia Law on
  Internet Use


  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'
  academic freedom.

  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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