Campus Message: Internet Filtering
April 26, 2001
Dear Campus Community,
After listening to many of you and studying carefully the Internet filtering issue, I have reached a decision. It is one in which I have conferred with the president's cabinet and relied heavily upon their judgment. Because of the areas they represent, I have been particularly sensitive to the analyses provided by Tammy Reid and Kathy Storm. I'm sorry this has taken so long, but I wanted to get as many perspectives as possible, and my schedule this year has made it impossible to operate within a tight timeframe. Thanks for your patience. Thanks even more for the spirit of understanding and respect with which you discussed this issue. You have avoided the rhetorical temptation to reduce a complex issue into something simple and "obvious." Once again, you have made me proud to be a Whitworthian.
I would like to divide this letter into four sections. First, I want to make some observations about what we have learned in examining this issue. Second, I'll outline roughly the decision and how it will be implemented. Third, I want to be clear about what this decision is not meant to symbolize. Fourth, I also want you to know what the decision is intended to symbolize.
What we have learned:
- All technologies designed to screen Internet materials are fallible. Ultimately, individuals determine what they put into their minds and hearts.
- Current screening technology is much more discriminating than past generations of filters. It is impossible to dodge completely the law of unintended consequences, but services that block specific sites, rather than key words, reduce dramatically the collateral blockages that would impede academic inquiry.
- We are doing very little to enforce current policies on the intended usage of our Internet service. While we heard no concerns expressed when we instituted a usage policy, a significant number of folks voiced concern over filtering as a means of enforcement.
- A disturbing number of students have reported habitual and addictive use of Internet pornography. Many of these students cite ease of access as a very significant inducement, particularly in their initial use of pornography.
- A significant number of students are not using any form of Internet pornography. Many people have avoided this problem.
- Pornography can ensnare very virtuous people.
- Many former pornography users make reference to a support group or a person who provided a level of accountability that helped them stop the behavior.
- Screening should not be viewed as the only, and perhaps not even as the most important, element in reducing the use of pornography. A comprehensive approach will produce better results than simply screening sites.
- The Internet provides access to other forms of addictive behavior, such as gambling or watching "The Simpsons" (joke - I hope). All addictions steal a person's self-control.
- Any form of screening threatens Whitworth's deep commitment to openness and self-determination, and should be used only in conjunction with an intentional effort to protect the free exchange of ideas.
The decision and its implementation:
In reviewing all of the reasons for and against filtering, I feel a minimal screening service is the best decision for Whitworth. The members of the president's cabinet share this point of view. It is impossible to condense the rationale for this decision into a paragraph. But personally, it is my general feeling that the fight to protect the free exchange of information on this campus can be fought collectively and openly. The battle, however, against a multi-billion dollar pornography industry is too often fought alone, in the privacy of one's room. It seems to me that our community battles are more winnable than the ones we fight in solitude. And if we lose this particular battle, we can begin to see human beings as objects with which to please ourselves, rather than as people to be loved. Because we're an institution built on Christian principles, this decision falls in line with St. Paul's exhortation to "make no provisions for satisfying our lusts" (Romans 13:14).
- There's a lot of bad stuff we pipe onto our campus, but we're going to limit our screening to pornography. The main reason is more practical than theoretical. The most pervasive Internet problem we have is with pornography, so if we can reduce its incidence somewhat by "surgical" means, it makes more sense than using a general filtering approach. I'll say more about that below.
- This action will be a part of a larger effort to provide support for students in their efforts toward personal growth. It will not be considered "the solution."
- While our concern with pornography has been related primarily to issues raised by students, the rationale for and the benefits of screening pornography pertain to all campus computer users. So this policy applies to all of us.
- Some computers in the library will remain unblocked. In the scholarly environment of an academic institution, it is quite conceivable that occasions will arise in which studies are facilitated by total access to the Internet. Our judgment is that the problem we're trying to address manifests itself less often in the research environment of a library, although we know that abuse takes place there on occasion. Initially, we will not use screens in supervised computer labs or in public access stations in the library. We would reduce the number of unblocked stations only if abuse occurred.
- We will provide a procedure to unblock anyone's machine temporarily for legitimate academic purposes.
- Some specific implementation decisions, such as selection of the specific filtering service, still need to be made. I would also like to get feedback from both faculty and students about an approval process for unblocking computers. It could be that the unblocking procedure will be influenced by the service we use. We'll keep you posted as these decisions are made, and we may seek your advice once we have a set of good options.
- We will continue the practice of not routinely or randomly monitoring Internet usage. Currently, our I.T. folks have imposed upon themselves the equivalent of a "probable cause" restriction. In other words, we would not look at any aspect of a person's Internet history without a compelling reason.
- We may well make mistakes in setting this up, so we want your feedback on whether this action is accomplishing its purpose.
- Along the same lines, if this action turns out to be ineffective on either technical or moral grounds, we'll change it.
- We'll implement this program at roughly the beginning of this fall semester.
What this does not symbolize:
- This does not imply that we are shifting our philosophy of believing that it is important for students to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their actions. As I pointed out in an earlier email, our hope is that this will provide more control for many of our students.
- This does not imply that we believe sexually related sins to be especially bad. Having said that, it is true that pornography is linked in some studies to degraded views of sexuality and, in some cases, to anti-social behavior directed toward women and children.
- Singling out pornography does not imply that it is necessarily more pernicious than other objectionable content, such as hate speech. It does recognize that a) pornography presents a far more widespread and psychologically insidious temptation than does studying something such as hate speech, and b) viewing pornography is less likely to serve any legitimate academic purpose than viewing other potentially objectionable content.
- This does not imply that we will be a more intellectually restrictive institution.
What this does imply:
- This implies that we find most forms of pornography inconsistent with all that we stand for as an institution that exalts Christ, believes humankind is made in the image of God, and believes human sexuality is sacred.
- This implies clear intention on our part to support the students who have found pornography to be a counterproductive influence on their lives.
- The pace and process with which we have reached this decision implies that we consider screening various forms of Internet access to be a very serious action, one which will be taken only after careful consideration.
- This implies that it is our desire to be a community that is committed to healthy and respectful relationships. We feel that limiting access to pornography is in line with this commitment.
Well, this note is way longer than I ever intended it to be. Sorry. I would rather have communicated this decision in person, but I couldn't make that happen. Thank you again for your good thinking and respect in all of these discussions. I know that some of you disagree with this decision, and I am impressed with your arguments and the ways in which you have expressed them. I guess this is one of those situations in which you weigh everything you can, look within yourself, and pray that your decision will honor God. This is what I've tried to do. Thanks for all of your help.