- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Virginia can bar state employees from looking at sexually explicit materials on state computers now that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the case.

Six professors from Virginia public universities had challenged the law, arguing that it prevented them from doing research or giving certain assignments to students.

But the Supreme Court yesterday, without comment or dissent, refused to hear the case, letting stand an 8-4 decision by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond that upheld the state law.

The law, passed in 1996, bars more than 100,000 state employees including professors, librarians and researchers at state-supported colleges and universities from viewing sexually explicit material on office computers.

"My feeling was the state legislature, in its usual lack of wisdom, had failed to distinguish the universities from the highway department," said Melvin Urofsky, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the lead plaintiff.

Mr. Urofsky said the law had limited him in how he could teach a communications law class. He called it "annoying" but not crippling.

"The way the law was worded, people who were working in health research or AIDS couldn't look things up because it was sexually explicit," he said. The law prohibited accessing material that showed, or described, sexual conduct.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued the case for Mr. Urofsky and the other plaintiffs.

They initially won in 1998 when a federal judge in Alexandria overturned the law as a violation of the professors' First Amendment rights, but the appeals court overturned that judgment.

Attorney General Mark L. Earley, who defended the law in the courts, had always presented the matter as one of spending taxpayers' money. Yesterday, he praised the Supreme Court decision for allowing the state the latitude to supervise what state employees are doing.

"Virginia taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the use of state computers on state time by state employees for downloading pornography off the Internet," he said in a short statement.

But Kent Willis, executive director of the state ACLU chapter, said upholding the law sets a dangerous precedent.

"The practical effect of the law is somewhat narrow in that it only applies to sexually explicit materials being accessed by public employees. The problem is the case itself lays the groundwork for a state to go beyond that," Mr. Willis said.

"What the 4th Circuit did was come as close as any court has yet to saying public employees have no free-speech rights," he said.

Mr. Willis said the ACLU now must hope that another case comes from another circuit, which rules the opposite of the 4th Circuit. That would create a conflict among the courts and make Supreme Court intervention more likely.

But there are no cases on the horizon, and Mr. Willis said he doesn't even think any other state has a law that goes as far as Virginia's.

For now, Mr. Urofsky said, the law's effect hasn't been extensive, and many schools aren't policing the matter.

"For a majority of Virginia faculty, it's not going to make too much difference because universities as a whole have not adopted stringent policies or have adopted flexible policies," he said.


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