Catholic University of America student government passes resolution banning top 200 porn sites

April 9, 2019

At an April 1 meeting, the student government at the Catholic University of America passed a resolution to block the “top 200 pornography sites” from university Wi-Fi. This block would be at odds with CUA’s stated commitments to free expression and academic freedom.

While the university has not committed to implementing the filter yet, a spokesperson for the university told Catholic News Agency “the student resolution made a convincing argument that banning porn on the University network sends the right message to the student body.” The spokesperson went on to say the last time CUA considered banning pornography from the university internet, it was cost-prohibitive, but that advances in technology have made it cheaper.

We’ve previously explained at length the many problems with porn filters in the academic context, so if you’d like a primer, please consider reading my January post in its entirety. The upshot is that most of what can be described as “pornographic” is protected speech. Its ban improperly burdens a significant amount of legitimate research in the fields of sociology and psychology, posing significant problems for academic freedom. Such bans also rarely achieve their desired effect due to their ease of circumvention. Consider, for example, that such a ban would not affect mobile networks, and that mobile devices account for the majority of porn traffic.

Many will ask why FIRE cares about whether an avowed religious institution would ban pornography. In fact, we get some variation of that question nearly every time we criticize a religious college or university for an act of censorship based on that institution’s religious leanings.

The fact is that religious institutions do have the choice to censor speech that conflicts with their religious mission. Their freedom of association allows them to decide the terms of their own communities. In FIRE’s speech code database, Spotlight, there is a category of “warning” schools for universities that explicitly place other values above freedom of speech. This category is largely composed of religious institutions and military academies.

However, most private and religious schools in the Spotlight database are not “warning” schools because they instead choose to promise freedom of expression and academic freedom to their students and faculty. CUA’s faculty handbook, for example, articulates a clear promise of academic freedom in its policies:

The Catholic University of America affirms its commitment to academic freedom. In so doing, it reaffirms its commitment to the tradition of higher learning that is the heritage of both the Roman Catholic Church and the nation. It is a tradition grounded on respect for truth, social responsibility and individual rights. It is a tradition that posits freedom of inquiry, open discussion and unrestricted exchange of ideas as essential to the pursuit of knowledge.

CUA President John Garvey has been emphatic on the issue of free expression: “If a university doesn’t allow free inquiry, it won’t be able to teach students well or make progress in knowledge. […] You can’t have a university without freedom of speech.”

Religious universities that have made the choice to promise academic freedom and free expression cannot turn around and play censor when faced with content that runs contrary to their religious beliefs. CUA must reject this proposed ban.

For more information on the myriad problems with porn filters in the campus context, check out our in-depth article on the subject. For more information on the subject of free expression at religious schools, read the article “Is speech suppression at religious colleges ‘the invisible free speech crisis?’” by my colleagues Sarah McLaughlin and Laura Beltz.


Schools:  The Catholic University of America