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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Porn, Higher Ed and Free Inquiry
March 30, 2014 - 8:55pm

A few weeks ago the IT Security Director at University of Pennsylvania, Joshua Beeman, posted a question to the EDUCAUSE Security List Service. A grants officer had asked him about a provision she had found in an NIH grant regarding prohibition against pornography.  A query on the NACUA list produced no response. EDUCAUSE’s Jarret Cummings did some digging around and followed up with a blog.  IHE’s Carl Straumsheim wrote an article about it last week. 

Net/net: NIH intended it only for funds that go towards the building of a network, and not about network use … and no funds to date have been withheld or withdrawn due to the activity.  So why should we care?

Because the explanation sounds manufactured after the fact to cloak an original intention to insert personal preferences into grant legislation. Not only do I think that this provision would not survive constitutional challenge but it offends fundamental higher education free inquiry values. Why didn’t the drafters or Congress say something at the time when Rep. David Obey, former chairmen of the House Appropriations Committee, had the language inserted four times in the bill covering “Departments of Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Labor, as well as their related agencies.” 

The defense of pornography does not move me. I care about First Amendment rights as much as the next person. The not getting higher education is what sends me. It is what should have sent someone in the Congressional process of proposing and passing this legislation to take notice and say something. Since that did not happen, one wonders whether anyone in that body knows enough about higher education’s values or purpose in U.S. society to have raised the issue.

No legal topics should be off limits in research.  Pornography is legal. That is the First Amendment point. Almost twenty years ago the Third Circuit struck most of the Communications Decency Act down as a result, and for obviousness reasons the issue has not been revisited since.  So why sneak it into a 1.1TRILLION dollar appropriations bill for research?

I am not persuaded by arguments from human resources (“hostile workplace”) or appropriate use (which is an institutional policy, not law).  Instead, it signals a personal and/or political agenda, one that is at odds with higher education values.  Full frontal attacks to free thinking in contemporary political culture get the “Third Circuit” treatment: a ready injunction, which never allowed the Communication’s Decency Act to go into effect, and a quick hearing to strike it down.  But a slip here and one there ... who will notice?  Who will care?

Thank heavens a grants officer at the University of Pennsylvania did.  And the emphasis is not on making a big deal out of this particular instance but sharpening all of our thinking – and demanding that our legislators do so as well.  Early detection can lead to a cure.  That cure is a preservation of higher education’s fundamental values of free, legal inquiry.  If we don’t keep that torch alight, who will?  Wouldn’t you rather it be higher education that stands for these values, and not pornographers?

 

 

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