Can professors publish whatever they want on their faculty Web pages? Should there be guidelines? Does it matter whether the subject is not the professor's scholarly area of expertise?
These are some of the questions students have been asking in letters to Washington University's student newspaper, on Web logs and in hallways since a controversy erupted over a professor's views on homosexuality found on a Web site linked to the school.
Some students want professor Jonathan Katz's remarks on homophobia removed from the university's server. Katz staunchly defends his right to broadcast his opinions outside the classroom. And the university, while not endorsing Katz's views, says he has a right to put his opinions on his Web page as long as he does not discriminate against students based on those views.
Similar controversies have popped up at other universities. At Indiana University a couple of years ago, a business professor raised a fury when he wrote in his blog that hiring gay people as teachers "puts the fox into the chicken coop." Initially, business professor Eric Rasmusen agreed to remove the item from the university's Web site. He later reposted it when university lawyers said he had not violated any policies.
Several years earlier, many people demanded that Northwestern University remove the Holocaust denials that engineering professor Arthur Butz posted on his campus-based Web site. The university resisted such calls to action and said it would not do anything as long as his views did not enter his classroom.
The Washington University debate surfaced last month when Jeff Stepp, a senior who is taking a class taught by Katz, wrote a commentary in the student newspaper raising questions about the site.
Katz's site, which is linked from the physics department's Web page, gives background on his expertise in gamma-ray bursts, lists his scholarly articles and has a link to his curriculum vitae. Toward the bottom of the page, a disclaimer states: "These represent my personal views alone. Washington University would never take an official position which might deviate from the 'politically correct' line. I don't know how they find out what the line is each day, but they sure keep up-to-date."
Below the disclaimer are links to 16 commentaries by Katz on topics including the war in Iraq, nuclear proliferation and learning disabilities. The item that has caused the recent stir is titled "In Defense of Homophobia."
In it, Katz writes that homophobia is a moral judgment on acts engaged in by choice. Like incest and bestiality, he says, homosexuality is condemned by the Bible as a sin.
He goes on to say that AIDS had been around for decades and had been mostly rare until it found fertile soil among gays, which helped turn it into an epidemic. "The human body was not designed to share hypodermic needles, it was not designed to be promiscuous, and it was not designed to engage in homosexual acts," he writes.
After stating that homophobic people do not encourage violence against gays but just choose to stay away from them, he concludes, "I am a homophobe, and proud."
In Stepp's article, he rejects Katz's reasoning but says it is not Katz's opinions that disturb him most: "What I find more problematic is that these essays, along with others, are hosted on University-owned Web space, funded by our tuition."
Stepp said in an interview that he is struggling with what the solution ought to be.
"At the very personal level, to be honest, I would have to say it should be left up there on his Web site, because while I think his material is certainly offensive to some and spreads misinformation, that is not something that is uncommon to a lot of Web sites. Do I want to say just because I don't agree with his opinion that it should be removed?
"That opinion is battling with the part of me that thinks this is hateful and should be removed. . . . Should we let anybody we want on a university-based Web page say 'I hate gays' or 'I hate blacks' or 'I hate Jews'?"
Katz, a tenured professor who has taught at Washington University since 1981, said he posted various commentaries in the last several years on his Web site because it is difficult to get op-ed pieces published and he wanted to make his views available.
He published them on his faculty Web site, he said, because it is the one he has but also because he believes it is part of his obligation as a public intellectual to think and present his views on different topics. As long as he does not say his views are the official view of the university, he thinks his faculty site is an appropriate place for his opinions.
"It's part of one's obligation as well as one's right to publish one's opinions on a university Web site," he said.
In a statement released last month, Washington University said it does not monitor personal Web pages and is not responsible for their content. Such sites may be on the university's servers as long as they comply with local, state and federal law and do not involve copyright infringement, constitute libel or harassment, contain illegal materials, or take up inappropriate amounts of bandwidth.
The statement added that the views expressed on Katz's Web site are his own and do not represent the university's opinion.
"As long as Professor Katz does not use his university-conferred authority in matters related to students (grading, recommending, mentoring, etc.) to reward those who share his views or punish those who do not, and does not otherwise participate in any discriminatory activity that would violate the university's anti-discrimination policy, he has a right to free speech to express his opinions under the Web page policy of the university."
Quoting from the university's policy on discriminatory harassment, the statement notes that the "free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints . . . may sometimes prove distasteful, disturbing or offensive to some" but that examining and challenging one's assumptions, beliefs or viewpoints is "intrinsic to education."
Robert O'Neil, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in the First Amendment and free expression, said he does not see a need for constraints on such Web pages unless its content comes into the classroom or if the site is actively used for a class.
Unlike public universities, he said, private institutions have more leeway to restrict speech. Still, it would be difficult for officials to define what is acceptable and unacceptable speech, he said.
Furthermore, he said this is perilous ground for a university that could appear to be suppressing unpopular views in a climate that values free expression and academic freedom. That could be a deterrent to attracting and retaining faculty, he added.
Students and Katz acknowledge that his opinions are never brought up in class.
"In my classroom, I teach physics," he said. "It's not difficult to keep political issues outside of a physics class."