Internet filter sparks protests at Walla Walla University

Students spent the week demonstrating in hopes of a delay in the filtering plan.

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Tents line both sides of a walkway leading to the Walla Walla University administration building Thursday afternoon as students rest, study and socialize during a mutilday protest on the campus. Students formed the group WWU Unite to protest how the university is implementing an Internet filtering policy.

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Tents line both sides of a walkway leading to the Walla Walla University administration building Thursday afternoon as students rest, study and socialize during a mutilday protest on the campus. Students formed the group WWU Unite to protest how the university is implementing an Internet filtering policy.

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A main organizer of WWU Unite, Christian Bell, left, laughs with a group of fellow students outside the Walla Walla University administration building Thursday.

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Walla Walla University sophomore Evangelica Monroig works on her laptop while friend and classmate Georgia Leaf catches up on some sleep in their tent mid-afternoon Thursday on the Walla Walla University administration building lawn. The students were taking part in a protest of the way in which the university is implementing an Internet filtering policy for the school. 'God doesn't mess with free will,” Monroig noted.

Read statements by the WWU administration and student group below

COLLEGE PLACE - The decision by Walla Walla University to start filtering its Internet access this fall has prompted protests and calls for a delay from students.

An Internet filter is expected to be in place by Sept. 27, in time for the start of the 2010-11 academic year. The filter will prevent access to pornography and sites with gratuitous hate and violence, which were selected for exclusion because they go against the Seventh-day Adventist school's core principles, officials say.

But many students have spoken against the administration in recent days, voicing frustration that students, faculty and staff were not included in the decision-making. Instead, faculty, staff and students were simply told of the upcoming change.

"Our primary complaint is about the way they went about it," said Christian Bell, a student and protester.

Since the announcement, students have delivered a petition with hundreds of signatures to WWU President John McVay, asking for a delay in filter installation until further discussion can occur.

In the past week, Bell and other students pitched tents outside the administration building and spent about four nights and days in peaceful protest.

Student leaders have also drafted five demands for the administration. A key demand is that students, faculty and staff be briefed on developments and proposals related to the filter over a series of meetings before the filter is put in place. They are also calling for more thorough study of the practice within other universities, and to invite experts in the field of Internet filtering.

Vice President for Academic Administration Ginger Ketting-Weller said the students are within their rights to conduct peaceful protests, but that the university's administration is not obligated to run the decision through any more sessions.

"It was felt that it was an administrative issue," she said.

Given the students' response, the university has put together two task forces, representing faculty, staff and students, that will meet during the summer. One task force will explore the details of installing the filter, and the other will address online gaming and gambling, which has negatively affected many students, Ketting-Weller said.

Initially, gaming and gambling sites were discussed for filtering, but Ketting-Weller said the university will instead put a support system in place to aid students in need.

Both task forces are to present findings to McVay by Aug. 15. Absent any serious issues, the university will continue to move forward with the Sept. 27 implementation date.

Bell said part of the concern is that the task force is meeting and concluding its work in the summer, before the full student body returns from break.

The work of the task forces is not viewed as enough for the protesting students, particularly because the decision to filter was not halted in the process.

Bell expressed disappointment about the way the process was handled.

"The way they went about it, it's not in line with the Walla Walla University tradition of governing with consensus," he said.

Bell and other protesters believe the summer is not enough time to explore the technical challenges of properly installing an Internet filter at a university that relies on broad Internet access for much research.

"It affects every person on campus that uses a computer," he said. "It certainly seems like an issue that should include a serious amount of feedback, before a final decision has been made."

Ketting-Weller said maintaining academic integrity is a major goal, and any compromise to it would result in the filter being removed. She acknowledged that certain disciplines, such as social work, require access to case studies that can have graphic or disturbing images.

The decision to install an Internet filter goes back about 10 years, Ketting-Weller said. That was the first time the university explored the move. The school did so again five years ago, although nothing emerged from either study.

"Both times they felt like it wasn't going to work," she said.

But given the university's place as a Seventh-day Adventist school, Ketting-Weller said having the filter in place was something the current and past president sought.

"Both noticed it's not congruent with our mission to have wide-open access," she said.

As part of its decision to install the filter this fall, the administration consulted with other Adventist schools, and other colleges that have Internet filters in place with few problems.

She added that despite the protests, many other students and families have expressed gratitude.

"Frankly, when people have found out we don't filter, they are surprised," she said.

Bell said students will continue to put pressure on the administration to delay implementation. The 22-year-old senior, who will earn his history degree next week, said his decision to help lead the protests has little to do with how it will affect him personally.

"I graduate next week," he said. "The policy itself has no effect on my life whatsoever. The reason we are out here is truly on principle. We care about this institute, and we want to see it go in a positive direction."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

Official Fact Sheet

The filter will be in place when fall classes resume Sept. 27. The filter will prevent access to pornography, violence, and hate group sites through the university's Internet system. The university is adopting this filter in order to support the faith-based values of its mission, and maintain an educational environment supportive of those values for students, faculty, and staff

The decision to adopt an Internet filter followed administrative-level conversations regarding internal computer use and a benchmarking study of Internet filtering policies of both private and public colleges and universities.

By implementing Internet filtering, Walla Walla University joins four of Washington state's 10 private colleges and universities that responded that they have an Internet filtering service or Internet traffic "shaping policy" in place. In addition, eight of Walla Walla University's sister colleges and universities reported filtering Internet service.

Walla Walla University has collected initial information on the potential effect to academic research capabilities, and based on benchmarking studies, the university anticipates minimal to no disruption to academic research capabilities. The president has stated that significant interference with academic purposes would cause the university to remove the filters.

Social networking sites and other communication tools (such as Skype) will not be affected.

The president has announced two task forces to work this summer, reporting to him in August. One task force will work on the details of how we can offer Internet services in a way congruent with our mission; the other will focus on the issue of how we can help students avoid internet gaming addictions, and respond to help those who are addicted to gaming. The task forces will both consist of faculty, staff and student representation.

Source: Walla Walla University

WWU Administration Fact Sheet regarding the internet filter
WWU Student Handout regarding filter protest

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