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March 2, 1995

Pitt to restrict some Internet news groups to those over 18

A standing committee of faculty, staff, students and a representative of the Office of General Counsel has been charged by Senior Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance Ben Tuchi with determining which of the more than 10,000 news groups on the Internet will be carried on Pitt's computer network.

The committee is part of a new policy developed by an ad hoc committee formed to review the use of the University's computer resources to access, display, post or print materials that may be considered obscene and/or sexually explicit.

Obscene and/or sexually explicit materials on the Internet became an issue at Pitt last fall after Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) announced that it was going to block access to pornographic pictures and text available on its computer network.

At the time, Pitt announced its support for CMU's actions and the executive committee on academic computing (ECAC) formed an ad hoc committee of faculty, staff and students to review the University's policy on access to possibly obscene and/or sexually explicit materials.

"Our objective is not to be a censor," said Harvey Wolfe, a faculty member in the School of Engineering and chairperson of the standing committee. "Our objective is to consider all of the issues related to the Internet news services and to recommend a policy that is most beneficial for the University community." According to Wolfe, the committee will begin its work after spring break and will continually review the various news groups available on Pitt's computer network. "Our charge is to administer the recommendations of the ad hoc committee," he said. "We will have to meet and determine how we can best discharge those duties." Of the approximately 10,000 Internet news groups, Pitt currently subscribes to about 3,000, according to Norman Hummon, chair of both the ECAC and the ad hoc committee that developed the new policy.

Since the Office of Computing and Information Services (CIS) does not have the resources to review every news group on the Internet, the ad hoc committee recommended establishing a standing committee to draft, review and update guidelines on the basis of which CIS will add, delete or retain news groups on Pitt's computer network.

The ad hoc committee also has suggested that Pitt review its computer access and use policy, its sexual harassment policy and CIS's Computing and Ethics Guidelines to make sure that they adequately deal with issues such as the display of obscene and/or sexually explicit materials on computer screens.

"Except with respect to obscenity, or other speech not protected by the First Amendment, the guidelines will be content-neutral," the policy states.

Guidelines formulated by the ad hoc committee separate the news groups into two categories: 1) those with content, as defined by state and federal law, that is likely to be considered obscene or sexually explicit and harmful to minors, 2) those without such content.

According to the policy, matriculated students, faculty and staff, age 18 and older, will automatically be granted access to all news groups carried on Pitt's computer network. Those under the age of 18 normally will be granted access only to the second set of news groups.

Under certain circumstances not yet established, however, students, faculty and staff under age 18 could apply for access to the first set of news groups, just as they can apply for access to restricted collections in the library.

Those who use Pitt resources to display, print or circulate obscene material, as defined by state and federal law, could have their computing privileges suspended or other sanctions imposed upon them under the policy.

Computing privileges also may be suspended or other sanctions imposed upon any member of the Pitt community who circulates, to persons under the age of 18, obscene and/or sexually explicit material that has been defined by state and federal law as harmful to minors.

Additionally, computing privileges or other sanctions can be imposed on any member of the University community who is found to have used University resources in a way that violates University policies and guidelines on obscene and/or sexually explicit materials.

In developing guidelines on obscene and/or sexually explicit materials, ECAC's Hummon said there were four sets of laws that had to be considered. First were state statutes on sexually explicit materials harmful to minors. Those statutes distinguish between pornography and sex education materials. Then there were state laws and federal laws on obscenity, "and there are legal tests and guidelines to define all of those things," Hummon said.

The final set of laws involve Constitutional freedom of speech and the press.

"We were trying to balance between the First Amendment issues on the one side and the other three kinds of state and local laws on the other," Hummon said. "The key piece of advice that we got from the University legal counsel is to distinguish between minors and adults. That by law is defined as under 18, and 18 and over." According to Hummon, the ad hoc committee thinks the University is on safe ground legally in partitioning of the Pitt network into two divisions, one with content likely to be considered obscene and/or sexually explicit and one without.

"For adults, my interpretation of what we proposed, is we are not censoring," Hummon said. "We will continue to deal with these issues in an adult manner as we have in the past. We haven't pulled anything. We don't have any plans to get rid of anything. But because the law is pretty explicit about minors, we will be responsive to the state statutes on those issues and set up a separate service."

–Mike Sajna

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