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Would filtering the Internet at public colleges and universities violate the First Amendment?

Unfortunately the answer to this is unclear. So far only one state — Virginia — has passed a law allowing public colleges and universities to filter the Internet.

In 1996, Virginia passed a law that “restricts access by state employees to lascivious sexually explicit material on computers owned or leased by the state.”

Access to such material may be allowed if it is part of an “agency approved research project” and permission is granted by a supervisor. The law was challenged by six state university professors on grounds that the law unconstitutionally interfered with their research and teaching.

The case was heard by the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in an 8-4 decision, held the statute to be constitutional. The court had to determine if the statute regulated speech made by public employees, in their role as private citizen, on matters of public concern. The critical determination, according to the court, “is whether the speech is made primarily in the [employee’s] role as citizen or primarily in his role as employee.” The court found in its 2000 ruling in Urofsky v. Gilmore, that the speech at issue — “access to certain materials using computers owned or leased by the state for the purpose of carrying out employment duties” — was clearly made in the employee’s role as employee. Therefore the statute “does not affect speech by [the professors] in their capacity as private citizens on matters of public concern” and thus “does not infringe the First Amendment rights of state employees.”

The professors in Urofsky had also argued that the statute was unconstitutional because it infringed on their First Amendment right to academic freedom. The 4th Circuit judges rejected this argument, saying that their review of the law lead them to conclude that the right to academic freedom was held by the university and not the individual.

Don't certain kinds of harsh or insensitive speech tend to silence others' free expression, thereby working against the free exchange of ideas?
Can't a public college stadium prohibit fan profanity because there are kids in the stands?
May I hand out election-campaign literature on public land?
Why shouldn't public colleges be allowed some say in the type of research done by their professors or the funding sources if a line of inquiry might negatively affect the school?
What is academic freedom?
Is academic freedom limited to professors?
As long as they don't discriminate against certain speakers or messages, what's wrong with campus free-speech zones?
What about independent student newspapers or fliers? Can schools control their distribution?
Are college journalists entitled to all the same liberties as professional journalists?
How independent are public college/university-operated electronic media?
What if other students try to prevent distribution of student publications that they find offensive?
Are public colleges permitted to put any restrictions on the student groups that they will recognize? What if activities advocated by a group are illegal?
Can a college student invoke his or her religious beliefs to avoid engaging in an objectionable type of artistic expression?
A college professor makes references to materials of a sexual nature during his lecture. Could he be disciplined for such comments or is this protected speech?
Can people who oppose a speaker's message use their 'freedom of speech' to drown out the offending words?
What exactly is 'directory information'?
Why would the news media want or need personal information about individual students or incidents?
May a student sue a private university for damages under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA)?
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Last system update: Saturday, April 24, 2010 | 15:09:56
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