Federal court allows school's restrictions on access to Internet discussion groups

OKLAHOMA — A professor at the University of Oklahoma who sued the school for blocking access to sex-related discussion groups on the Internet lost the first round in his legal battle in federal court.On Jan. 28, a federal judge in Oklahoma rejected Professor Bill Loving’s challenge to the university’s effort to regulate and restrict access to Internet newsgroups using the school’s computer system.Loving’s suit against David Boren, the president of the university, claimed that the university’s action was arbitrary and violated his First Amendment free speech rights.Loving sought an injunction which would have required the university to restore the unrestricted access to the groups.Judge Wayne E. Alley ruled in Loving v. Boren, 1997 WL 125924 (W. D. Okla. 1997), that Loving did not present any evidence at trial that he was “personally” affected by the university’s policy.”There was no specific, substantial evidence at trial that [Loving] was effected by the blocking,” Judge Alley wrote in his opinion.Loving, an assistant professor of journalism and an adjunct professor of law, said he initiated the suit because he did not feel the Oklahoma’s administrators should be the judges of whether material on the Internet is obscene.Last March, the school limited access to more than 100 newsgroups, including “alt.sex” groups and other discussion areas on the Internet.According to Boren, the university blocked the groups from the campus sytem to comply with a state law which prohibits storing obscene material on state property.However, in doing so, the University also blocked several newsgroups, some of which contained no sexual content, according to Loving.In the ruling, Judge Alley agreed that “there was no systematic examination of the groups before they were blocked.”Apparently, the administration admitted that no school official had even viewed the sites the school blocked.In response to the litigation and the ensuing public outcry, the school instituted a new policy this January where it established two levels of newsgroup access.Level A restricted access to “non-controversial, academic and technical newsgroups.”For Level B access, which was open to all newsgroups, users must be at least 18 years old, a current student, faculty or staff member and must file a request “verifying that the use of the newsgroups is for legitimate research, teaching, professional service or other academic endeavors.”Judge Alley stated that “by enacting the new policy, Oklahoma University has effectively mocked [Loving]’s claim.”Judge Alley also asserted in the ruling that OU’s computer and Internet services “do not constitute a public forum” and there “was no evidence at trial that the facilities have ever been open to the general public or used for public communication.”Before the March 1996 policy, prior approval to use the electronic bulletin boards was not needed.Judge Alley also agreed with the school’s argument that Loving’s claim was moot since the blocked newsgroups could have been accessed using the school’s computers , “via the Internet or the World Wide Web.”Loving has filed his appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.He stated the key to his appeal will be to argue that the Judge Alley was incorrect to state in the opinion that the school’s internet service is not a “public forum” because the school did not intend for its internet access to be open to the public.”I’m counting on [the appeals court] to understand the nature of the public forum analysis,” Loving said “A public forum is based on speaker’s rights, not whether or not anyone can access the computers. Similar to student newspapers, just because everyone cannot write on the newspaper does not mean it is not a public forum.”