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Triple-X at Tri-C 

A porn crackdown leaves professors wondering where academic freedom ends and prurience begins.

Memo to professors: Ph.D. isn't shorthand for "porn - hound." - MARK  POUTENIS
  • Mark Poutenis
  • Memo to professors: Ph.D. isn't shorthand for "porn hound."
The Internet became a porn playground precisely because of its promise of confidentiality. Gone was the shame of sweating in line at the video store, trying to conceal Pam and Tommy Lee: Hardcore and Uncensored behind a never-to-be-watched copy of The Wedding Planner. It meant porn on demand -- without embarrassing human contact.

Unfortunately for Cuyahoga Community College employees, the Internet isn't as confidential as it seems -- at least when you're surfing at work. A recent computer sweep at the school turned up 62 employees who used their work computers to access sexually explicit websites. Two employees, one a professor, lost their jobs as a result of the crackdown. The rest were let off with warnings.

Tri-C spokeswoman Claire Rosacco would say only that one employee was fired and the other resigned, refusing to specify which was the professor. But two faculty members say a longtime art professor quietly resigned soon after the warning letters were sent.

Rosacco declined to discuss the material that resulted in the lost jobs, except to say it wasn't child porn. "If you think pornography, you're there," she says. Pressed to elaborate, she responds: "I'm not going there."

Employees can't say they weren't warned. Tri-C's computer policy explicitly bars the use of "sexually oriented" material. The school sent out gentle reminders about the policy twice -- once in June 2000 and again in January 2001. If employees needed a more salient example of the dangers, they had only to look to other state bureaucracies. Since August, Ohio Job & Family Services Director Tom Hayes has been investigating computer misuse. So far, 10 workers have lost their jobs. The latest was Allan Schroeder, an account executive who resigned June 12 after investigators confronted him about a cache of child porn stored on the state's computer network.

Academics have, for the most part, been spared such prying. A search of the archives of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which covers the goings-on at universities, turned up just a handful of stories about professors losing jobs, and most involved child porn. In Ohio, a computer science professor and a computer engineer at Marietta College were indicted on charges that they stored child porn on campus computers.

Tri-C discovered its misuse after a campus-wide computer sweep, though it wasn't spurred by complaints, says Rosacco. "They do random spot-checks on a periodic basis."

Tri-C then sent letters to 62 offending employees, but some letters weren't received until May 2. They couldn't have come at a worse time. May 2 is the college's Employee Appreciation Day. While some workers devoured baked goods brought in by managers, others felt that queasy stomach associated with tenuous job security.

The letters quickly became fodder for campus gossip. They were "the big talk at all the faculty meetings," says an art professor who requested anonymity. And the talk wasn't pleasant.

Colleges have long painted themselves as havens of intellectual freedom. While Internet porn may or may not fall within the realm of legitimate scholarship, Tri-C's one-size-fits-all approach scares faculty.

Some are concerned about getting a scarlet letter if they accidentally trip over a porn site by clicking the wrong link or mistyping a web address. Says a professor who recently got high-speed Internet access at home: "I never surfed the web before, and I've fallen into all sorts of things."

Others worry the sweeps will compromise academic freedom. "It's so nebulous, the distinction between what's pornography and what's research, especially in the field of visual communications," says an art professor.

Indeed, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, famous for turning phalluses into art, has been widely called obscene. And zero-tolerance policies elsewhere have already made for unintentional comedy. In Virginia, six professors sued over a law forcing state employees to get permission before viewing "sexually explicit" material online. The request would then be made available to the public. Among those who sued was a professor barred from accessing the state's database of sexually explicit poetry and another who had to stop using the Internet to research gay issues. The law was struck down as unconstitutional.

And of course, there remains the age-old debate of what constitutes pornography. In the PC world of academia, that definition can become awfully narrow. "I remember cases where a faculty member was accused of creating a hostile work environment because he had classical nude photos on his wall," says Jonathan Knight, a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors. "He was an art professor."

Adds a Tri-C professor: "When push comes to shove, I don't even know how to define pornography. Your garbage might be my treasures. And I know there are some art forms that are pretty aggressive, and they've been called pornographic."

But beyond puritanical squeamishness -- and the native instinct of all bureaucracies to create policies upon policies -- employers have good reason to outlaw porn. Frederick Lane, author of a forthcoming book on workplace privacy, says courts have shown an increasing willingness to buy hostile-work-environment complaints as part of sexual harassment claims.

"What's really driving these one-strike-and-you're-out rules by workplaces is because it's a tremendous liability," Lane says. The issue becomes more profound when a school receives taxpayer money, as is the case with Tri-C, because there is greater public accountability and scrutiny. "When it's a public institution, there's less of a strong academic-freedom defense," Lane says.

Even so, the Tri-C sweep is already drawing comparisons to a witch hunt. "I'm a pretty amenable person," one professor says. "I do what I'm told. But I am concerned. I'm concerned we might be entering into a new age of McCarthyism."

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