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Last September, Sunny Eaton, a 28-year-old law student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), tried to access a news article on the Web site 365gay.com from a law-school classroom. But when she typed in the URL, instead of an article, she got a message on her laptop screen: “The Websense Category ‘Gay and Lesbian Content’ is filtered.”
The message surprised and angered Eaton, the co-chair of OutLaw, a student organization at the law school that fosters awareness of legal issues concerning gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. After complaining to the law school’s network administrator, she learned that the university had deployed blocking software made by Websense, a company that specializes in Internet security and filtering. “Whoever runs technological services hasn’t brought our system up to date with the university’s nondiscrimination policy,” Eaton says. UDC’s nondiscrimination policy, or “Tolerance Statement,” states that the university community rejects discrimination based on sexual orientation.
A number of innocuous gay media sites are inaccessible from the campus network, such as PlanetOut, the home pages of Curve and Girlfriends magazines, and 365gay.com, which Eaton describes as “CNN for gay people.” Eaton is taking a class titled “Gender, Sexual Orientation, and the Law” for which research on gay- and lesbian-oriented sites is required. “As law students and as gay and lesbian students, we need access to this information,” Eaton says. “There are ways to filter out obscene sites without filtering out sites with just gay and lesbian content.”
Eaton has complained to administrators three separate times to no avail. In recent months, fellow law student Debbie Anderson has joined her. Anderson stumbled upon the Websense filters independently while following the news about the February murders of Chicago judge Joan Lefkow’s husband and mother. When she tried to follow links to a page on Matthew Hale, the imprisoned white supremacist who had previously plotted Lefkow’s murder, she discovered that the university had blocked the site under the category “Racism and Hate.”
“I was pretty ticked off,” Anderson says. “We’re all adults who can’t access things because Big Brother upstairs doesn’t think we’re mature enough.” Anderson also discovered that the university is blocking some—but not all—Web sites dealing with bestiality (a property-rights issue that occasionally comes up in her torts class). She has complained to three law professors several times in person and by e-mail.
Anderson had already been complaining to the university faculty about a flier-posting policy that she believes administrators implemented as a direct response to fliers she had posted last fall protesting the presence of military Judge Advocate General (JAG) recruiters on campus. A few days after a student yelled at her for a “JAG Off” flier, the university issued a memorandum that stated any flier must be approved by a faculty adviser and stamped for approval by the vice president’s office (and also that “All flyers must adhere to proper rules of grammar”). Still annoyed by these flier regulations, Anderson says that the Internet filtering is the latest event in a “pattern of speech suppression” on campus.
University staff members familiar with the situation don’t think so.
“There’s no conspiracy here,” says Lewis Perry, the law school’s network administrator. The way Perry sees it, university IT personnel are “short-staffed and overworked” and don’t have time to go through Web sites themselves to decide what should be blocked and what shouldn’t. Websense automatically blocks Web pages based on its own analysis of their content. The way the software is set up, with an “out-of-the-box configuration,” more Web sites are blocked than should be. “The problem is finding the human resources to essentially go in piecemeal and unblock stuff,” Perry says.
Perry acknowledges that as a public educational institution, UDC “probably ought not to be doing this,” but says it’s the university’s techies, not the law school, who oversee the Web filtering. Perry has forwarded Eaton’s complaints to Mike Jacks, the university’s chief information officer.
Jacks also defends the use of Websense. It would be a waste of time, he says, “if I were to come to work and start looking for sites that have nothing to do with my job.” Jacks says that his predecessor deployed Websense to “manage the university’s resources.” Though wireless Internet access on laptops (which are mandatory equipment for law students) is filtered, Jacks says that students can go other places on campus if they need to do research on restricted sites. The computers in the undergraduate library, for example, get their Internet access from the Washington Research Library Consortium, not UDC. Those computers are unfiltered.
Law professor Tom Mack says it doesn’t matter if some unfiltered computers are available to students—the filtering remains a violation of not just UDC’s nondiscrimination policy, but the Constitution as well. “The First Amendment includes the right to receive and exchange information,” Mack says. UDC, as a publicly funded school, can’t discriminate against certain content. Even pornographic material is protected speech, as long as it isn’t obscene—and “obscenity is a very limited term,” Mack says. “They can either unblock it until they get the staff to do it right or get rid of it. You’ve got to give the students access. They’re adults.”
If the filtering persists, Eaton says that OutLaw will team up with other campus groups to draw attention to the issue. “It’s so completely contrary to what I understand our school to be about,” Eaton says.
“This is a scary time we live in, when so many of our constitutional rights are under attack, and the only way to protect them is through litigation,” says Anderson, who is slated to graduate this year. If the situation isn’t righted, she says, she will consider using her degree to sue the university. CP