Internet filter under discussion

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A sticker on a student's computer advocates for the rejection of pornography. Photo by Francesca Norman.

The University of Dallas Student Government (SG) is considering a proposal to add a filter blocking access to illicit or pornographic material on campus Wi-Fi.  

This proposal was prompted by similar actions taken by other Catholic universities, such as Notre Dame University. Notre Dame students and staff recently petitioned their administration to create a filter to censor this illicit material, according to the petition dated Oct. 23.

“It’s less about censoring the student body, and more about getting the student to make a profound statement about the dignity of women,” said John Paul Hasson, a sophomore SG representative. “Basically, we’re looking to do something similar to what the Notre Dame students proposed, but we are looking to get the UD student body behind it.”

Hasson hopes that SG will be able to unify the student populace behind this idea.  

“It’ll help make a statement, as a university, about the values we hold as a truly Catholic institution,” Hasson added.

SG President Clare Slattery said that this proposal was sparked by a discussion with other schools in the Catholic Council Network, to which SG belongs, on Jan. 29. The SG president of the University of Mary asked which other schools had filters to block pornographic websites.

The SG Executive Council discussed this topic with Provost Dr. Jonathan Sanford on Feb. 14, according to Slattery. Both Sanford and Director of Student Affairs Seth Oldham were supportive of the idea, Slattery said.  

“I don’t want to predetermine student reflection on it and say, ‘here’s what I think we ought to do,’ because that would influence positively or negatively the way people are exploring it,” Sanford said.

While Sanford did not give his opinion either way, he recognized the different sides of this discussion.

“Unequivocally the University of Dallas stands against pornography,” Sanford said. “There’s nothing of value in pornography, and there’s no freedom to be had in rooting oneself in evil activity.”

“[However], there are real challenges with the porn blocker because of its ability to be refined,” Sanford added.

Sanford added that another difficulty exists in defining what is and is not pornographic, giving the example of a nude work of art. Sanford encouraged students to freely discuss this issue and decide whether they want to propose this measure to the administration.

“I’m glad that students are taking up this issue, I think it’s worthy of careful consideration, and I’ll be happy to consider the results of those deliberations and take it into consideration with others,” Sanford said. “The University of Dallas is committed to the exploration of all subjects that are worthy of inquiry and seeks to promote a vibrant culture of virtue.”

One concern is whether installing this filter would infringe upon UD students’ freedom of speech. FIRE, a foundation that promotes individual rights in education, condemned the Notre Dame petition in an Oct. 26, 2018 article published on their website. The author, Ryne Weiss, wrote that “any institution that claims to protect free speech should not treat pornography substantially different[ly] than other protected speech.”

However, SG Treasurer Joe Griesbauer said that the proposed blocker would not change UD’s policy on this issue, because it already prohibits pornography.

“It’s part of the internet usage policy at UD that students sign,” Griesbauer said. “If we were to have this filter put in place, then we’re not changing anything in principle, because we already have a policy that eliminates these sites.”  

SG is not trying to impose its will on the student body, Slattery and Griesbauer said.

“As a school, if you just slap something down, it’s better that this comes in the form of a student resolution, with the students saying, ‘hey, we want to stand up, and we do believe that every human being has dignity and doesn’t deserve to be used or objectified,’ ” Slattery said. ”There can be people who say, ‘We are grown up adults, who are trying to form our own moral compass, and figure out how to guide ourselves,’ but I think having an internet filter would send a good statement to the students in saying, ‘we don’t support this industry or this kind of activity, which uses people as objects, rather than supporting their dignity as people.’ ”

Should the university install a filter, some websites might be unintentionally banned. The Wi-Fi filter would work by blocking certain websites that contain keywords, and therefore, could potentially block websites that aren’t primarily pornographic in nature, according to Hasson and Slattery. Highly-trafficked websites like Reddit and Tumblr could be blocked, since they also allow pornography, according to the FIRE article.  

Slattery recognized this challenge.

“The main issue is that, were we to do this, we would want to ensure that there are still freedoms for academic research,” Slattery said. “For example, if a student were to look up information on same-sex marriages for a politics paper, and it [was] a faulty or cheap internet filter, it might pick up key phrases, like ‘sex,’ that would prevent the student from completing their work.”

Griesbauer acknowledged that implementing a filter cannot entirely address pornography usage by UD students.

“There is still a choice, because everyone has a phone in their hands, to turn on their data and do whatever they want to do,” Griesbauer said. “That choice is yours, but it won’t be approved or facilitated by the University of Dallas, which is a Catholic institution.”

They have not yet had an official debate on the matter, but they hope to discuss it soon and get the student body’s views on the matter before putting up an official motion, Slattery said.

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