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College, Pornography, and Free Speech

Are pornography filters on college campuses a violation of free speech?

The question of internet pornography access on college campuses has taken an interesting turn recently. In October 2018, 80 male students wrote an open letter requesting a pornography filter for the Notre Dame University campus WiFi. Emily Shugerman, writing for The Daily Beast in an article on 12.06.18 titled “These College Guys Are Trying to Ban Porn on Campus” says that lead letter-writer Jim Martinson has received emails from more than 40 students at other universities who want to install a filter on their own campuses. She goes on to report that “students at universities across the country told The Daily Beast they are working to get pornography off their campuses”.

The proposal is simple: Install a filter on the campus WiFi that bars access to all websites that exist for the purpose of disseminating porn. Notre Dame’s technology policy already bans accessing pornographic, sexually explicit, or offensive material on campus networks, but Martinson said he was shocked by the amount of support for a digital barrier. A petition in support of the measure was signed by more than 1,000 men and women—more than a tenth of the Notre Dame student body. Martinson’s open letter in the Notre Dame Observer claimed that pornography teaches men to objectify women, normalizes sexual assault, and exploits the men and women involved. The men of Notre Dame were calling for a filter, he wrote, “in order to stand up for the dignity of all people, especially women.”

The letter was quickly followed by a response from more than 60 “women of Notre Dame,” who argued that pornography’s prevalence on campus was “preventing men and women from encountering the full personhood of one another in friendships and relationships.” Every student who spoke with The Daily Beast mentioned the levels of violence against women displayed in modern pornography. (A third of all porn scenes showed perceived physical or psychological harm to another person, one recent study found.) While the students never claimed that pornography directly caused sexual assault, several said they felt it contributed to the current cultural moment.

Whether this enthusiasm for installing filters and educating students about the negative effects of pornography gains momentum is far from a sure thing. The reaction to this idea shows how far the feminism of today has moved. Notre Dame student Jackie O'Brien wrote her own letter to the editor calling the idea “patronizing” and “degrading” to sex workers. Anne Jarrett—a Notre Dame gender studies major and self-described “obvious feminist”—urged the letter-writers to call their legislators or work for a campaign around sexual assault, rather than wasting their time banning porn.

Additionally, Peter Jeffery, a professor at the school, wrote to say that such a filter could prevent people with a porn addiction from speaking out and finding help. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the filter would earn its “red light” rating for infringing on freedom of speech. “Most pornographic, sexually explicit, and offensive material is protected under the First Amendment,” the civil-liberties group wrote. “As such, any institution that claims to protect free speech should not treat pornography substantially different than other protected speech.”

An August 2017 survey in the “Archives of Sexual Behavior” of college students from four different countries (Canada, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S.) found that 76.5% of the sample used the Internet for “sexual entertainment” and 30.8% of American students reported engaging in cybersex. Freedom of speech vs. research showing negative effects on college students such as lower grades, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and negative body image. Freedom sometimes comes at a high price.

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