Internet use freedoms affirmed for Virginia state employees

Friday, February 27, 1998

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP)—A federal judge has struck down a Virginia law that barred state employees from using state-owned computers to access sexually explicit Internet sites.

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema made the ruling Feb. 26 in a lawsuit filed by six college professors and the American Civil Liberties Union. The professors had filed suit last May against then-Gov. George Allen, saying they needed to access explicit sites for legitimate research purposes and that the law took away their free speech rights.

“I’m obviously delighted,” said Terry Meyers, an English professor at the College of William & Mary and one of the plaintiffs. “I’ve felt all along that it wasn’t appropriate for the government to dictate to citizens what they can read and can’t read and what medium they can use to do it.”

The law, which took effect in July 1996, was intended to prevent state workers from wasting time and state money on inappropriate Internet use. It was not aimed at professors doing legitimate research, backers of the law say.

But because the law defined nudity as sexually explicit material, it could affect material professors use in such courses as art history, human sexuality, English literature and psychology, Virginia ACLU director Kent Willis said.

The six professors argued that under the law, it was technically illegal for them to do Internet research on nude portraits or classic literature that uses erotic language, even though the same material is readily available in the library.

Meyers said he found it ironic that the state would buy erotic works of literature, put them on databases at state universities and then restrict him from accessing them without permission.

“I think it’s a good ruling and a good reaffirmation of academic freedom as well,” he said.

Worried that the law would not meet constitutional muster, backers included a clause allowing state employees to apply for exemptions that would let them access explicit Web sites.

But, the judge ruled the law is overly restrictive of free speech, even with that exemption included.

“The Supreme Court has held that such grants of unfettered discretion can be expected to invite arbitrary enforcement and to chill the exercise of speech rights,” Ms. Brinkema wrote.

The state attorney general’s office had not had time to examine the ruling as of Friday morning, spokesman David Botkins said.

“We will review the decision in this case and determine whether or not to proceed with an appeal,” said David Botkins, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.