Notre Dame students demand porn filters for campus internet, citing ‘red light’ policy

By October 26, 2018

Earlier this week, a student group at the University of Notre Dame released a petition with over a thousand student, faculty, and staff signatures asking for the university to implement a web filter to block pornography from university WiFi.

The president of the group Students for Child-Oriented Policy released the petition on Tuesday, along with a letter — signed by dozens of students “as the men of Notre Dame” — arguing that “[t]his filter would send the unequivocal message that pornography is an affront to human rights and catastrophic to individuals and relationships.”

The next day, the vice president of SCOP published a response — signed by dozens of students “as the women of Notre Dame” — in support of the request. That response offered that the filter should restrict the “top-25 pornographic sites.” The “top-25” sites are not listed, so it’s impossible to know the group’s criteria, or what innocuous content might be caught in the filter’s dragnet. While this might sound like a quibbling distinction to make, some of the most-trafficked mainstream sites, such as Reddit and Tumblr, allow pornography. The definitional criteria and implementation of a filter dramatically impact how burdensome and censorious the filter policy could be.

The proposed filter would enforce a Notre Dame policy that earns the university its “red light” rating from FIRE. The “Responsible Use of Information Technologies at Notre Dame” policy reads in relevant part:

Never use University resources to post, view, print, store, or send obscene, pornographic, sexually explicit, or offensive material, except for officially approved, legitimate academic or University purposes.

This earns our red light rating because most pornographic, sexually explicit, and offensive material is protected under the First Amendment. By way of example, in American Bookseller’s Association v. Hudnut, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit struck down an anti-pornography statute for going beyond the Supreme Court’s narrow definition of obscene, and therefore unprotected, speech, saying (internal citations omitted):

Under the First Amendment the government must leave to the people the evaluation of ideas. Bald or subtle, an idea is as powerful as the audience allows it to be. […] Totalitarian governments today rule much of the planet, practicing suppression of billions and spreading dogma that may enslave others. One of the things that separates our society from theirs is our absolute right to propagate opinions that the government finds wrong or even hateful.

As such, any institution that claims to protect free speech should not treat pornography substantially different than other protected speech. Although Notre Dame is a private school, it explicitly promises that “students and student organizations are free to examine and to discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately.” The “Responsible Use” policy and the proposed filter premised on it both violate that promise of free inquiry and expression.

And if there is one group on Notre Dame’s campus that should understand the importance of a university’s free expression policy, it’s SCOP. In 2014, in the wake of pushback for their views against same-sex marriage, SCOP was denied recognition by Notre Dame’s student-run Club Coordination Council. The reason given for the denial was that their mission “closely mirrored” other groups on campus. FIRE challenged that justification as a pretext for viewpoint discrimination in a letter, and reminded Notre Dame of its promises of free expression and inquiry for students and student groups. SCOP was recognized the following fall.

A filter would not only censor protected speech, it would also be ineffective at preventing people from viewing pornography. FIRE has explained the futility of web filters before. Schools are only technologically able to filter the traffic on their own wired and WiFi networks; they cannot filter what students view on the internet off campus, or on mobile networks. Since most porn traffic comes from mobile devices, combined with the fact that eliminating the “top-25” sites would leave literally millions of less mainstream sites untouched, SCOP’s claim that a filter “will significantly erode its presence” is questionable at best.

Notre Dame is a Catholic university, but it cannot both promise free expression and inquiry to its students and then restrict speech and inquiry into topics in conflict with its Catholic values. It should not only reject this petition to implement the webfilter, it should reform its policies to bring them in line with the university’s mission “to provide a forum where through free inquiry and open discussion the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.”

Schools: University of Notre Dame