Campus Prude Group at Notre Dame Co-Opts #MeToo Rhetoric, Demands Online Porn Ban

The University of Notre Dame's pugilistic leprechaun mascot puts up his dukes to confront a boy- and girl-next-door wearing black shirts that sport the PornHub logo
Artist conception
Members of the campus group Students for Child-Oriented Policy are convinced that the road to Hell is paved with online porn — and they're not going to take it lying down

Aiming to land a haymaker straight to the kisser of wanton indecency, a student group at the University of Notre Dame has called on university officials to institute a campus-wide Wi-Fi block on online porn. To make its case, the group, which calls itself Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP), has co-opted some of the language of the #MeToo movement — along with some timeless scare tactics.

In an October 2018 letter to The Observer, Notre Dame’s student-run daily newspaper, SCOP president James Martinson and 80 “men of Notre Dame” asked the university to “implement a filter to make pornography inaccessible on the Notre Dame Wi-Fi networks.”

Deeming pornography “an affront to human rights and catastrophic to individuals and relationships,” the letter writers depicted pornography as widespread, highly addictive, and inherently exploitative. It linked consumption of pornography to a host of societal evils, including “child sexual abuse, divorce, male fertility problems, sexual assault and the acceptance, normalization and sexualization of cruelty towards women.”

Adult content, the authors argue, contributes to “prostitution, human trafficking and the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases.”

The following day’s Observer carried a cheerleading response to the men from “the Women of Notre Dame,” signed by SCOP vice president Ellie Gardey and 40 fellow coeds.

“Pornography sucks the energy and will out of men to see and respect women comprehensively: mind, heart, body and soul,” Gardey and her cohorts argued, warming to the task.

They called for the university to “to take a serious stand against pornography” by filtering out the Top 25 pornographic sites from the school’s Wi-Fi.

“We want a filter because we want to be seen and treated by our Notre Dame brothers for who we are: their sisters in Christ who are worthy of the greatest dignity and respect,” the women wrote. “We want a filter because we want to eliminate sexual assault and sexual abuse on our campus. We want a filter because we care deeply about Notre Dame students — including women — who struggle with pornography addictions.”

Both letters linked to a petition for a Wi-Fi porn filter that was said to be supported by “1,000 students, faculty and staff.” Martinson told the Daily Beast’s Emily Sugarman that administrators at the upper echelons of the university had been “very receptive” to the idea of a filter and predicted an online porn ban was just around the corner.

Martinson’s enthusiasm may be premature.

In a recent story about the contretemps, Inside Higher Ed student-life reporter Jeremy Bauer-Wolf points out that as a private institution, Notre Dame could institute such a ban without fear of a First Amendment-based court challenge. (Even public universities may have that right, thanks to a 1997 federal court ruling.) But when Bauer-Wolf asked Notre Dame spokesman Paul J. Browne whether the university is considering SCOP’s suggestion, Browne appeared to demur, explaining that “students are expected to ‘self-filter’ and not patronize porn websites.”

As the First Amendment champions at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) noted in a blog post about the proposed online porn ban, the university’s internet policy already precludes the use of the school’s resources “to post, view, print, store, or send obscene, pornographic, sexually explicit, or offensive material,” unless it’s for “officially approved, legitimate academic or University purposes.”

That policy alone was enough for FIRE to slap the school with its “red light rating,” given that “most pornographic, sexually explicit, and offensive material is protected under the First Amendment.” FIRE also observed that, because the vast majority of consumers access online porn via cell phone, and because the proposed prohibition would not apply off-campus or on private networks, a Wi-Fi block would only amount to a symbolic gesture.

(Though FIRE opposes SCOP’s anti-porn proposal, the organization went to bat for the group when it sought official recognition from the university in 2014.)

Despite reports that students at other schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, are taking up their own anti-porn crusades, the Notre Dame proposal has met with plenty of skepticism on campus.

When the subject was broached at a December 4 meeting of the student senate, student body vice president Corey Gayheart appeared to pooh-pooh the effort when he said, “It tends to happen each year at some point.”

Op-eds and letters to the editor in The Observer threw cold water on the idea. A letter from freshman Joshua De Oliveira debunked many of SCOP’s assertions about the harm porn doth wreak. (Multiple studies have found that pornography isn’t harmful, doesn’t lead to sexual assault, and isn’t addictive.)

In “Give Me Pornhub or Give Me Death,” Observer columnist Jeffrey Murphy listed ten countries that have outlawed porn, including Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are practically nonexistent.

“Ah yes, to be a woman in Afghanistan!” Murphy wrote. “Censorship of pornography has done wonders for their liberation and progression!”

Fellow Observer columnist Jackie O’Brien objected to the SCOP proposal on the grounds that it discriminates against sex workers, such as those who work in porn. O’Brien compared SCOP’s plan to the federal government’s censorship of the online listings giant Backpage.com, which the feds shut down in 2017 in the name of fighting sex trafficking. In doing so, O’Brien argued, the government also “shut down the main line that sex workers used to vet their clients for safety.”

Porn’s approval ratings have been on a general upward trend over the past several years. Gallup reported in 2018 that 43 percent of Americans say pornography is “morally acceptable,” compared to 37 percent the prior year. The polling agency posited that Donald Trump’s legal problems over his alleged dalliance with porn star Stormy Daniels may account for the leap.

And yet, the Daily Beast’s Sugarman and the Inside Higher Ed’s Bauer-Wolf both suggest SCOP may have caught some of the the #MeToo wave in its contentions about the objectification of women, and that a possible alliance between social conservatives and feminists in favor of banning porn cannot be discounted, especially in light of recent censorship initiatives on social media, not to mention Starbucks’ decision to block porn on in-store Wi-Fi.

Front Page Confidential reached out to Notre Dame Law School professor Alex Levy, an expert on human trafficking and the internet who has contributed to this publication in the past.

Replying via direct message, Levy wrote that she finds the students’ proposal “troubling,” and she wonders what might transpire if the school were to act on it.

“The internet is full of content that students could plausibly find just as offensive as pornography (not to mention material that stands at odds with Catholic teachings),” Levy wrote. “How does one draw the line between blocking pornography and blocking access to websites that provide information about how to access abortions, for example? Or to websites that simply advocate for such access?”

Concluded Levy: “In the end, hiding material is easy. Learning to rebut it is difficult, but worthwhile — some would even go so far as to say it’s what higher education is all about.”

For Further Reading:
“More Monkey Business: You Can Thank Donna Rice for Starbucks’ Promise to Block Porn on Free Wi-Fi”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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