We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
I read Sharon J. Chambers’ letter “Surf’s Up” (The Mail, 5/13) so I decided to read your article “Web Slight” (4/15) to see what the issue was all about.
Chambers seems to believe that it is a matter of the University of the District of Columbia’s (UDC) blocking recreational or “lifestyle” Web sites, which don’t contribute anything to learning. She briefly acknowledges, only to dismiss, the constitutional issues involved. As the article itself makes clear, she is mistaken on both counts.
I am sure Chambers recognizes that issues such as gay/bisexual/transgender rights have been legal controversies for some time (especially since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court established same-sex marriage) and thus important material for law students. Also, the material on bestiality, according to UDC law student Debbie Anderson, bears on a property-rights issue that is discussed in the law school’s torts class. Racist speech, of course, directly implicates the First Amendment, which, last time I checked, was a staple of the law-school curriculum.
Also, since the U.S. military bars known gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, military recruiting on campuses, including UDC’s, has been an important student issue, as the “JAG off” flier controversy makes clear.
More broadly, by blocking gay/bisexual/transgender Web sites, UDC is engaging in viewpoint discrimination, which is unconstitutional at a public university. I hope Chambers saw UDC’s law school’s own network administrator being quoted as saying that since UDC is a public school, it “probably ought not to be doing this.”
As UDC’s chief information officer, Mike Jacks, has pointed out, people who are paid to work there may be subject to restrictions on what they can access using university resources and on the clock. But students generally pay to go there, and in any case their studies and speech at a public school have constitutional protection. And where he says that students can always go elsewhere on campus to view those Web sites, the words limp off the pages on crutches. If the alternatives pose no burden to the students, then the blocking is a total waste of time and money. If on the other hand going to, say, the undergraduate library is any kind of a burden to students (say, the extra time walking or not being able to conveniently access important materials at the same time), then the policy still imposes some limits, which he has done nothing to justify, on the students’ research.
Even if blocking some Web sites were permissible, using an off-the-shelf filter that also blocks constitutionally protected material is not, even if staff time to make individual Web-site decisions is scarce. In any case, “gay and lesbian content” and “racism and hate” are illegitimate criteria for blocking Web sites.
Chambers is right in that identity theft, computer viruses, and hacking are serious problems. However, I fail to see how blocking Web sites discussing gay/bisexual/transgender concerns or racism will contribute to solving any of them.
From what I have read, UDC is flat-out wrong. It’s censoring certain viewpointswhich would be impermissible in regard to, say, student speech on campus. And in fact, the material it’s blocking is directly relevant to the curriculum and to other student concerns. If I were in charge there, I would consider accessing those sites a much better use of the school’s IT resources than, say, accessing a joke Web site. UDC’s law school needs to stop the blocking, pronto. Of course, I would be happy to hear more of UDC’s view on this, if it has any more to say.