Until this month students and staff at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, United States, could tap into their campus computer network for sexually explicit pictures, including bestiality and child pornography.
The images were available to anyone on the Internet who was interested in such illicit sex. They could be called up on the sexually explicit "newsgroups" which are among the most popular on the Usenet, the computer network devoted to thousands of topics, including politics, philosophy and literature.
But at the beginning of November, the university, which is at the forefront of computer technology in the US, decided to pull the plug on computer sex. Don Hale, vice president in charge of public relations, said it was decided such material was illegal.
"We have to be careful because some of the users of our bulletin board system are under the age of 18," said university administrators in a letter announcing the decision. This was a reference to younger undergraduates and elementary and high school students who have access to the campus network.
Carnegie Mellon made the decision after taking legal advice and after Bill Arms, vice president for computing services, had read Pennsylvania statutes and cruised the Internet. When he saw what was out there, Arms was concerned that the university could be held liable as a purveyor of pornography.
"You've either got to put your head in the sand or you've got to interpret the limit," said Arms.
However, the private university's action is causing concern at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties and policy group in Washington. "It's like banning Henry Miller from the library," said Mike Godwin, the foundation's staff counsel. "This is a pure academic freedom issue."
The university, however, denies this. "It is not our intention to inhibit discussion of important issues," said Don Hale. "But it is the intention to eliminate an illegal activity."A newsgroup specialising in safe sex has, for example, been allowed to continue.
The university argues that shutting down sexually explicit bulletin boards is not like banning Henry Miller from the library because anyone can choose to put material into a bulletin board, whereas the university has the responsibility of selecting books for the library. Other universities have also restricted access to computer pornography.