Students Ask Notre Dame to Ban Porn

This undated photo shows the statue of Sacred Heart in front of the University of Notre Dame's Main Building in Notre Dame, Indiana.

By Alex Chediak Published on January 12, 2019

This past October, James Martinson, a senior at the University of Notre Dame, led a large group of male students in asking the University’s administration to block pornography on its campus Wi-Fi networks. The next day, Ellie Gardey led a large group of female students in giving public support for this request.

The effort to ban porn on campus has now spread to student groups elsewhere, including Catholic University of America. It has also spread to Ivy Leagues like Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.

Some argue that a ban on porn amounts to censorship. To be sure, we have reason to be concerned about the lack of free speech on college campuses in our day. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a critic of campus speech codes, is a strong ally in this regard.

But FIRE opposes Martinson’s request. The irony is that FIRE and the group Martinson and Gardey lead, Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP), were once on the same side. SCOP gained its Notre Dame affiliation in 2014 only after FIRE gave its support.

If businesses can take steps to limit what’s accessed on their networks, why not a university?

Porn bans are one of those conservative vs. libertarian issues. Good people should agree that porn is harmful, even if we may disagree on how to best oppose it.

Is Porn Protected Speech?

FIRE says that “most pornographic, sexually explicit, and offensive material is protected under the First Amendment.” That’s an awfully broad statement. In support, they cite a 1985 ruling from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

A lot has happened since 1985. The Internet has become widely available. From the total privacy and anonymity of a cell phone or tablet, people of all ages can view and stream the most horrific content imaginable. One in eight Internet searches are for erotic content. We’re not just talking about scantily clad images that sinfully curious high school boys of a previous era might have hoped to find in a counter magazine. We’re talking about hardcore graphic videos, 88% of which feature physical aggression, typically from men towards women. About half feature verbal aggression. The women often show pleasure in response to this aggression. That’s seriously messed up! In the real world, violence towards women is a crime. And the women don’t like it.

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Repeated viewing of such content results in the cultivation of a highly warped view of sexuality and personhood. Research has been published on the addictive and brain-distorting effects of pornography. Eleven states have passed resolutions declaring porn to be a public health issue. K-12 schools and private companies routinely block online porn using a variety of commercially available filters. McDonald’s has stopped allowing customers to access online porn over their Wi-Fi networks. Tumblr and Starbucks recently made similar commitments.

Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. We all know you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. If businesses can take steps to limit what’s accessed on their networks, why not a university? A 2013 survey revealed that 63 percent of male Notre Dame students viewed pornography on the university Wi-Fi network. The University of Notre Dame actually has a policy against accessing porn on its networks. Is it too much for Martinson and his colleagues to ask the university to take reasonable steps to enforce this policy?

Is Blocking Porn Legal?

The University of Notre Dame is a private entity. It’s their right to have a policy against online porn. It’s also their right to enforce this policy, should they chose to do so. What about public universities? As Inside HigherEd reported, “As early as 1997, a federal court ruled that colleges (including public institutions — the case involved University of Oklahoma) can legally restrict graphic and sexual content on their networks.”

Yes, students would still find porn. But when you make something more difficult to find, fewer people find it. And they find it less often.

This was in the early days of the Internet. Long before laptops, tablets, and cell phones proliferated. Universities now pay big money to have large amounts of bandwidth on their Wi-Fi networks. They hire qualified personnel to monitor the stability and security of these networks. They have every right to decide what content is fair game for consumption on their networks.

Would It Work?

Martinson and others acknowledge that a filter would not be a perfect fix. Students can go off the university Wi-Fi and use their cell phone’s data plan or create a hotspot to view porn. And a filter couldn’t block everything. If you make it too broad, it ends up blocking legitimate content. For example, the petition from Notre Dame’s female students suggests that the top-25 pornographic sites be blocked. Students could still find illicit content, but the main avenues would be gone.

Yes, students would still find porn. But when you make something more difficult to find, fewer people find it. And they find it less often. And what they find is maybe not as dangerous and toxic as what they would have found. And over time, the needle moves in the right direction. Martinson and his colleagues are to be commended. May their tribe increase.

 

Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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