Academic freedom and workplace propriety are clashing at Cal Poly, as a professor is pushing for a campus ban on viewing pornographic computer images.
Linda Vanasupa’s proposal comes after her ex-boss, former materials engineering department chairman Robert Heidersbach, was convicted on a misdemeanor charge last year for improperly using the computer at his Cal Poly office to download more than 13,000 adult pornographic images over a two-month period, according to court records.
After an investigation was initiated, he was placed on a two-quarter sabbatical and no longer works at the university. Cal Poly administrators would not explain whether Heidersbach resigned or was let go.
“It’s not (an) appropriate and responsible use of state equipment to use it for your own sexual entertainment,” Vanasupa said. “Why should taxpayer money go toward professors viewing pornography? This would never fly at private businesses.”
The proposed campus ban, which the faculty Academic Senate is expected to vote on as early as next month, is fueling debate among some campus officials who say viewing pornography is protected under the First Amendment.
Provost Paul Zingg called viewing pornography on campus computers “stupid and wrong.” But he said censoring what employees view could be a violation of free speech.
“We can’t just ignore the law,” he said in reference to the First Amendment.
But, Zingg said, “anyone who engages in that kind of activity does so at their own risk” of creating a hostile work environment, which could lead to disciplinary action.
Vanasupa, who now chairs the materials engineering department, said when professors view pornography, it makes other students and employees feel uncomfortable.
Heidersbach is the second Cal Poly department chair to recently be investigated for viewing pornography on campus computers.
The FBI is investigating and will soon likely recommend felony charges against a former department chair who allegedly viewed child pornography on multiple university-owned computers in 2001, according to a federal law enforcement official and university sources.
Zingg declined to specifically acknowledge the two pornography cases.
But he said in “the cases I am aware of, the university acted decisively and properly in order to send a clear message that there are boundaries with regard to the use of state equipment.” Vanasupa, with the support of almost 20 professors, staff members and students, will soon present her proposal to the Academic Senate – a faculty governing body of about 50 professors that votes on academic policy. The senate has jurisdiction over changing the “Responsible Use Policy” – a guideline that outlines appropriate use of Cal Poly equipment, including computers.
“Academic freedom allows you to pursue truth in your field of study,” Vanasupa said. “It doesn’t give you the freedom to do whatever you want to.”
As an example, Vanasupa pointed to a computing policy at San Diego State University (like Poly, a California State University campus) than bans “the transmission of threats, harassment, defamation, obscenity and pornography.”
She’s not confident that her resolution will pass because professors “won’t want to willingly give up privileges,” she said. Since she’s gone public with her proposal, Vanasupa has received about 10 anonymous, obscene e-mails criticizing her proposed ban.
Unny Menon, a Cal Poly professor and chair of the Academic Senate, said he doesn’t advocate viewing pornography, but says doing so may fall under academic freedom.
“As a university, we have freedom of thought and a broad range of ideas,” Menon said. “We try not to ban things. But we’re struggling with this issue, because we might be infringing on an individual’s First Amendment rights. It’s tricky finding the right answer.”
Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who specializes in First Amendment law, said prior court cases do not make it abundantly clear if universities have legal grounds to censor what their employees view on state-owned computers.
Cal Poly “will run into difficulty defining what constitutes pornography and what doesn’t,” he said. “Is art containing nudes considered pornography? What about doing research on pornography? … Where would the line be drawn? These are good reasons why the university should not embark on this project.” Furthermore, Volokh said, because most professors are salaried, it’s difficult to pinpoint when they are “on the clock” and when they are not.
“None of us would be outraged if they sent personal e-mails or went to Amazon.com or booked a vacation,” he said. “It’s none of our business what professors do in their own offices, so long as they teach well.”