Court says state employees’ Internet use can be regulated

\nVIRGINIA – After round two, the score is now even between\na group of free speech-advocating Virginia professors and the\nstate government in a battle over Internet regulation. But the\nprofessors are gearing up for round three.

In a Feb. 10 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth\nCircuit reaffirmed a Virginia law that prohibits state employees\nfrom using state-owned computers to access sexually explicit material.\nThe law had been struck down in February 1998 after the professors\nhad challenged it.

The professors claim the law infringes on their First Amendment\nrights and hampers their ability to do research on human sexuality\nor sexually explicit poetry.

“The devastating aspect of the ruling is that the Fourth\nCircuit says a public employee has no First Amendment rights in\nthe workplace,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the\nVirginia ACLU, who filed the lawsuit.

Judge Wilkins, in the majority opinion for the court, said the\nlaw was not denying First Amendment rights. Wilkins said the key\naspect of the law was what type of speech was being regulated.

“The Act regulates the speech of individuals speaking in\ntheir capacity as Commonwealth employees, not as citizens, and\nthus the Act does not touch upon a matter of public concern,”\nWilkins wrote in Urofsky v. Gmore, 167 F. 3d 191 (4th Cir.\n1999).

Mark Early, Virginia’s Attorney General, has maintained that the\nissue at stake is not censorship or regulating the Internet. \nHe said Virginia taxpayers should not have to pay for the use\nof state computers on state time for downloading pornography.

Willis disagreed and said the professors have asked the court\nto reconsider the case. Even if the appeal is not granted, though,\nWillis said the Fourth Circuits’ ruling is so out of step with\nthe rest of the country that he feels confident its reach will\nbe limited.

“If a similar case is tried in another circuit, the court\nwill overrule the law,” Willis said. “Eventually the\nSupreme Court will overrule as well, and the law will be unconstitutional.”