Academic Freedom Triumphs Over Internet Filtering Policy
By: Valerie Nye
Peg Johnson, the library director at Santa Fe Community College (SFCC), was willing to share her story with me — a story about how the internet was being censored on her campus. When she began working at SFCC she learned that all computers on campus had internet filters, including the computers that patrons used in the library. Peg explains how she worked to change the campus’ policy on filtering content on the library’s computers.
VN: I know you have been working to unblock internet access to websites in your campus. Can you describe the internet access landscape at Santa Fe Community College when you arrived eight years ago?
PJ: When I arrived eight years ago, I discovered that there was filtered access to the internet through a program called Iprism. My understanding of that program is that some words and phrases were chosen and webpages with these words would be blocked. These included anything that had to do with gaming, gambling and pornography.
First, this led to unintended consequences. For instance, when I first came, no one could access the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship [a scholarship many students in New Mexico receive] site because presumably the site contained the word lottery. Students were also stymied in doing research on women’s issues and gender issues because some sites contained words that seemed to trigger the pornography filter.
VN: How did you go about initiating a change?
PJ: I started in trying to initiate change almost immediately relying on the well-established principle of academic freedom. I was met with great resistance by many on campus. Our IT Department was concerned about gaming and bandwidth but our bandwidth had increased dramatically since their first concerns and so does not seem to be a problem. The IT Department employees were also concerned about being offended by sites visited by others when they needed to provide maintenance on computers. Another concern was for students who might be offended if other students were watching what they deemed pornography. When I asked who was the judge as to what was pornographic, it was the usual answer — I can’t define it but I know it when I see it. As you can imagine, I found that to be unacceptable.
We have policies on campus that both outline appropriate conduct for students and faculty and staff and also policies that define what constitutes harassment and discrimination. I argued that those policies, rather than a filter, should guide appropriate computer use.
No reasonable argument I made seemed to work so I spent time building relationships with faculty, IT staff, and others and then gradually began to talk about the issue again. As faculty began to encounter the filter more and more in preparing for classes, I became the point person on campus for issues of academic freedom. I honestly think that the relationships established were the most important factor in initiating change.
The last push came when I prepared a detailed power point on issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech and presented that to Staff Senate, Faculty Senate, and the President’s Executive Team. Prior to the two senate meetings, I went to staff and faculty offices to talk about the issue to garner support to attend the meetings. Both Staff Senate and Faculty Senate endorsed changing our policies to guarantee academic freedom and the key was that academic freedom could only be invoked in matters that were related to academic endeavors, such as research, writing and pursuing creative expression. So academic freedom was not guaranteed when anyone was just cruising the internet for fun.
After many meetings (it’s academia after all) and much discussion, sometimes heated and passionate, over the entire concept of academic freedom and how policies work, the Governing Board passed revised policies that allow for the unfiltering of the internet.
VN: Were students aware of the blocked sites and the changes that have occurred?
PJ: We were successful in getting the student computers in the library unblocked even before the Board passed the new policies. Students were aware that they often encountered blocked sites and just accepted that. They are aware now that they never encounter the block on the student computers in the library even when they encounter it elsewhere on campus. More on that below.
VN: Have you had experiences in other academic libraries that prepared you to deal with this issue?
PJ: The only other experience I had that prepared me to deal with this was when there were challenges to books containing graphic images of nudes or other material that someone found offensive, always having to do with the human body. I had several of those and listened to patrons and explained not only the library’s policy but also academic freedom. I also fell back on policy that asked for a formal written complaint for consideration for removal of material. No one ever went the formal route. I did find having written policies and relying on them has been helpful.
VN: How do things stand today? Is there work that still needs to be done?
PJ: The campus has yet to institute a complete unfiltering of the internet. Our old Iprism software is still in place as of this writing even though it’s been a year since the Governing Board passed the new policies stating that the internet is not to be blocked. Academia moves slowly and between finding money for new software to insure security of systems while unblocking content and acquiring that new software a lot of time has elapsed. I believe we are close and I am still a pleasant pain in the side of everyone who needs to make this happen.
VN: Reflecting on your career, where does confronting this issue fit into how you see your work as a librarian?
PJ: I believe that access to information and advocating for open access to information is of primary importance in my role as a librarian. I can think of no higher priority. This was, to me, a necessary, righteous and critical fight, and one that has changed the culture of our small campus in many ways. It has been very gratifying to know that my efforts will have made a difference in what information is available to everyone on our campus.
VN: What advice would you give to librarians facing a similar situation?
PJ: My advice would be to understand the culture of the community before trying to change anything, work slowly to build relationships and gain allies, and bring the full force of the First Amendment and our own professional ethics to the situation. And yes, never give up.
VN: Thank you for sharing your story, Peg. I think this is an issue that other academic librarians have on their campus. Your experience is a good roadmap for librarians who want to make a change on their campuses.
There is a belief that academic libraries experience censorship issues infrequently or not at all. Over the course of my time writing for this blog, I have had requests for stories about academic libraries who have had to confront academic freedom issues. While I have heard stories in the last several years about difficult censorship issues, very few people at academic institutions are willing to speak publicly about the issues they confront. If you are an academic librarian and would like to describe an experience you have had, please contact me at email@example.com
Valerie Nye is the library director at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has been active in local and national library organizations, recently serving on ALA Council, the New Mexico Library Association, and the New Mexico Consortium of Academic Libraries. Val has cowritten or coedited four books including: True Stories of Censorship Battles in America’s Libraries published by ALA Editions in 2012. True Stories is a compilation of essays written by librarians who have experienced challenges to remove material held in their libraries’ collections. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her time away from the library she enjoys road trips in convertibles and kayaking on lakes. firstname.lastname@example.org