Measured against today's hardcore pornography -- or for that matter a typical episode of MTV's "The Real World" -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Marble Faun" is pretty tame stuff. But the 1860 novel about American artists abroad is still racy enough that when Terry Meyers, an English professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., stumbled across a passage of the book he wanted to research on the Internet, he decided he'd better ask permission from his dean, or risk running afoul of a controversial Virginia law.
"I suppose I'm probably the only person in the state of Virginia who follows it, but I figure the state spent a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of energy on that law, so I feel like I'm obligated to make a point about what it does to academic freedom," Meyers said.
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In 1996, Virginia became the only state in the country to require its employees to ask permission before looking at sexually explicit material online. Professors, social workers, and public health officials all come under the scope of the law, which only exempts law enforcement officials. Educators challenged the law shortly after it was enacted but lost their fight to have it erased from the books in 2001, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the matter.
Since then, it's been largely forgotten. Most Virginia schools and agencies include a note about the rule in their employee manuals, but professors and administrators say the law is rarely mentioned and almost never enforced. The state attorney general doesn't have any record of prosecutions under the measure either, leaving it up to individual institutions to police their employees. Still, opponents like Meyers say the measure weakens academic freedom in the state, and poses the lurking threat of selective enforcement by unscrupulous supervisors looking to single out unpopular employees.
The Hawthorne passage in question describes a real statue of a satyr by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Rather than risk a potentially unlawful look at any visual aids accompanying the text, Meyers did what he's done about a dozen times a year since the law was enacted -- he sent an e-mail message to his boss and waited.
William and Mary Provost Geoff Feiss used to be dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and the man in charge of approving Meyers's requests. He doesn't like the law any more than Meyers, but he dutifully reviewed and responded to the routine e-mails asking to search for potentially racy paintings and statues or sexually suggestive Victorian poems, like those written by 19th-century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Since taking over as the university's top academic official, Feiss has left instructions with his successor to rubber-stamp every request that Meyers sends.
"I suppose if I had been a vigilant administrator, I would have gone and visited them myself, but then I would have to get permission from somebody above me to visit them. I went along with this mainly to humor Terry," Feiss said.
Robert G. Marshall, the Virginia delegate who wrote the law, accused professors like Meyers -- who challenged the measure alongside the state's chapter of American Civil Liberties Union -- of being deliberately obtuse and overly literal in their reading of the measure.
"They can read Chaucer any time they want. If they can't tell the difference between titillation and mere reading, than they probably shouldn't be professors," said Marshall (R-Prince William), adding that he drafted the law after a professor complained to him about pranksters who left pornographic images on university computers. "It originally started with a professor who thought ... coeds shouldn't be subjected to this. Now, is that paternalistic? Maybe. I don't care."
'A Conscious Decision' to View
The law reaches beyond the confines of ivory tower. Although educators have been the most vocal critics, other state employees may be feeling the measure more keenly, as social workers investigating sexual abuse and public health officials monitoring the spread of sexually transmitted diseases have been forced to abide by strict rules for Internet access.