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Prof goes to court for Net porn

An Oklahoma professor fights a court case to challenge a law that bans users on state-owned computers from accessing pornography on the Internet.

University of Oklahoma professor Bill Loving and his wife went to see The People vs. Larry Flynt today, perhaps seeking inspiration.

On Friday, an Oklahoma court heard Loving's challenge to the university's compliance with a state law that bans users on state-owned computers from accessing pornography on the Internet.

U.S. District Court Judge Wayne Alley will now review the journalism professor's lawsuit, filed April 1996 after the university barred campus access to almost 200 Internet newsgroups in the "alt.sex" area of Usenet, after reviewing a dozen of the sites.

The university banned the newsgroups after being threatened with enforcement of the state law, which was passed unanimously by the Oklahoma House and Senate on April 15. But Loving cried censorship, and he wants the court to declare the university's actions as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. If he wins, Oklahoma universities could be exempt from the law.

Loving teaches course about mass communications law and censorship. Although he's up for tenure in a few months, he still brought the case against university President David Boren.

"My principles are worth more than a paycheck," he said today. "If I allowed this to happen, I'd be a hypocrite because I teach my students about the value of the First Amendment."

The case adds ammunition to a nationwide battle against Net censorship. Also on the forefront: the Supreme Court's constitutional test of the Communications Decency Act expected to start this spring, and the American Civil Liberties Union's suit against a similar New York law, which was filed Tuesday.

Oklahoma's resolution is similar to a Virginia law that went into effect July 1. The Virginia law also makes it a crime for state employees to use state computers to access or distribute sexually explicit material.

The ACLU told CNET it will file a case against Virginia law later this month. It also supports Loving's position and is considering a case against the Oklahoma law.

The lawsuits could make 1997 the year of precedent-setting cases regarding Net regulation and freedom of speech.

Loving's main complaint is that the university is not only censoring students' and teachers' access the Net, but that its action constitutes a form of "prior restraint." The court has to decide if the state's restriction on speech passes the constitutional requirement of having a "compelling government interest and [exercising] minimal intrusion." Loving also wants the term "obscene" to be strictly defined.

"The Internet carried by University of Oklahoma constitutes a common carrier and, as such, may not refuse to carry or allow access to any services, newsgroups, information, and opinion through the computer system," the filing states.

State legislatures oppose that notion. The university computers were paid for with tax dollars, and Oklahomans don't want their money contributing to the distribution of pornography, legislators argue.

"We wouldn't allow pornographic video tapes or books to be checked out from the University of Oklahoma library, so why should we allow the same material to be stored in newsgroups on the university server?" a co-author of the law, Rep. Fred Perry (R-Tulsa), said Friday. "Let the courts decide. But until they say it's OK, the legislature is saying that we don't condone pornographic information on state-owned computers."

To justify their rapid removal of the newsgroups to the court, the university showcased "obscene" pictures downloaded from the blocked newsgroups, such as child pornography and photos displaying sexual acts and nude adults. However, those same photos can still be accessed under the university's current Net access plan.

Kim Hefty, press secretary for the university, explained the university's step to broaden Net access since the lawsuit was filed.

"We have set up two new [computer] servers," she said. "One blocks certain alt.sex newsgroups. The other gives open access to the entire Net, but requires a password to enter. We did this because we have some students that are under 18, and we want to protect the university from liability."

The open-access network requires users to agree that they are using the Net for academic purposes.

Loving said that even under the dual-server system, the university remains in violation of the law which prohibits state-owned computers from downloading "obscene" material. That's why he wants academic institutions free from the law's regulation.

"The university's policy would make it a violation to surf newsgroups out of curiosity. In order to get on to the open server, users have to say it's for legitimate academic research. That's like saying you can only go to the library for a school assignment," he said. "The First Amendment was not written to protect just academic endeavors. It was written to protect people who want to speak, and people who want to listen."