Censorship - "Freedom of Homepage Speech"

Egypt and the USA

Introduction

All, having grown up in America, have been influenced in one way or another by censorship. When I was young there were a lot of movies that I could not watch, or was not supposed to watch, because they were censored. The same was true of music, although it was much easier to purchase music that was censored than it was to see a movie that was censored. Since the advent of the World Wide Web, the concern regarding censorship has heightened dramatically. Many parents are afraid of what their kids are doing on the internet. My grandma is always kidding me about the internet, saying, "anyone can become a world class terrorist these days, all they need is computer and an internet connection." This issue, among many, has caused much deliberation in congress and pushed the US constitution as far as its ever been pushed. But, it seems to have held up so far and freedom of speech has still prevailed. In the remainder of this text we are going to look at a scenario that occurred in 1996 at Virginia Tech, and consider the implications of this scenario had it happened at a university in Egypt.

Scenario

In 1996 a Virginia Tech alumnus came across a student website he/she considered to be unacceptable. The alumnus reported the finding to the Computer Science department, who later decided to take disciplinary action. The students website was found to contain pictures of marijuana leaves and smoking devices, as well as links to other sites where you could purchase the smoking devices. The student, who believed it was his first amendment right to display such content, cited two other students whoís websites contained similar content and one other student whoís website centered around white supremacy. After looking over the Policies for Student Life, Virginia Tech decided that this content was unacceptable and that the students had violated the Acceptable Use Policy. The students accounts were frozen and their websites were taken off Techís servers. This punishment raises an interesting question, "Does a public university have the right to abridge freedom of speech?"

US Response and Explanation

Under the United States Constitution, and backed by many US Supreme Court Cases, it would be legal for a student to create a website depicting content of drug paraphernalia and racial supremacy. The student would not be committing a crime within the United States but instead the student would be pending the judgment and rulings of the Universityís policy on Acceptable Use of Information Systems and Student General Life.

The student within the United States would freely be able to voice his viewpoint on the web because the First Amendment of the United States Constitution supports it. The First Amendment states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Abiding by the First Amendment, the United States has given the student his right to his Freedom of Speech.

The student also has the support of several Supreme Court cases. One specifically cited is the 1982 case of the Island Trees School District v. Pico. The case focused on the issue that nine books were censored within the libraries of the Island Trees School District Junior and Senior High schools for inappropriate content. The case went to debate within the Supreme Court and its ruling was that the school was not able to censor the books from the libraries. Since the books were not on the curriculum, this action was construed as a form of censorship towards students right to learn. The Supreme Court also ruled that the Island School District did not have the right to restrict the books from the library due to displeasing content.

So, the United States has ruled in favor of freedom of speech, but in 1996 this almost changed. The United States Congress enacted and passed the Communication Decency Act of 1996. This act generally stated that no state, local government, nonprofit libraries, or institutions of higher education may use any computer service to display material that is regarded as offensive by community standards. The Supreme Court deemed this Act to be Unconstitutional because it restricted the right to Freedom of Speech. Therefore, by this ruling, the student is able to post his viewpoint of drug paraphernalia on the Internet.

From what was presented, the United States overall would have to abide by the studentís right to post his website on the Internet. The question now is, "Is the website deemed acceptable by the Universities?" Every university has a different "Acceptable Use of Information Systems" policy. Each university also has their own "General Practice of Student Life" that incorporates policies on drug, alcohol, and racial activities that affect the general lifestyles of the student body. So itís not United States issue, it is a universities issue.

Egypt Response and Explanation

The Egyptian Constitution provides several freedoms, similar to the United States Constitution. However, a closer look at each article reveals that it allows the government to institute laws that severely limit those freedoms. An example of this is Article 54 which states "Citizens shall have the right to peaceful and unarmed private assembly, without the need for prior notice. Such private meetings should not be attended by security men." This seems very similar to the right to assembly provided by the United States Constitution in the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." However, the second part of Article 54 states "Public meetings, processions and gatherings shall be allowed within the limits of the law." This is completely reverse of the United States Constitution and it permits the government to limit freedom of assembly.

Articles 47 and 48 of the Egyptian Constitution provide the liberties relevant to this scenario. Article 47 states "Freedom of opinion shall be guaranteed. Every individual shall have the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally, in writing, by photography or by other means of expression within the limits of the law. Self criticism and constructive criticism shall guarantee the safety of the national structure." This seems to guarantee the studentís right of expression. However upon a closer look it can be seen that the article allows the government to restrict this right. Article 48 states "Liberty of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed . Censorship on newspapers shall be forbidden as well as notifying, suspending or canceling them by administrative methods. In a state of emergency or in time of war, a limited censorship maybe imposed on the newspapers, publications and mass media in matters related to public safety or for purposes of national security in accordance with the law." This right to liberty of press can probably be extended to internet speech. Things seem favorable for the student. However, Egypt has passed a law in 1976 amending the 1955 censorship law. This law is called The 11 Commandments of Censorship and one of the points states that "Portraying alcoholism or drug addiction; portraying gambling and the lottery as an acceptable source of income" is prohibited. Following this law, the Egyptian response would be to immediately sensor and shut down the studentís website, since it is now deemed illegal. The University can also punish the student since placing illegal material is against the policies of the Egyptian universities whose websites we have seen.

Comparison and Discussion of Responses

United States law would allow the student to post his site containing images of drug paraphernalia on any private Internet Service Providerís server. The student would be protected by the US constitutionís First Amendment which protects the right of free speech. Also, the three other students who had content on their web pages about drugs and white supremacy would also be protected by the First Amendment. However, the students do not have the same freedom when posting on the Universityís web space. Virginia Techís acceptable use policy prevents anyone from posting any information or images that are not consistent with the Universityís guidelines of student life. As punishment for violating the schoolís acceptable use policy the school would take down the site and would revoke the studentís computer use privileges. Any punishment that would be given out by the State would probably just be censorship of the studentsí sites.

In contrast, Egyptian law would not allow the student to post his site containing the pictures and links of drug paraphernalia on a private web server. His website would be either censored or removed. Also, at any Egyptian university, as with any United States university, he would not be allowed to post his site on their servers, because he would be violating their acceptable use policies, in addition to breaking university policy, he would probably be punished by Egyptian law. In 1976, Egypt amended the 1955 Censorship law called the 11 Commandments of Censorship that has a part that prohibits the published portrayal of alcoholism or drug addiction, which would make the studentís website a felony in the country. In addition the student who had published the white supremacy website would be violating the same censorship law because the law prohibit the defamation of Islam and of Mohammed or any other Islamic Prophet. So the State would punish the students with jail time and a large fine as defined by 1955 Censorship Law.

In summary, outside of university policy, Egyptian law would punish the students for violating a commandment of censorship. In contrast, United States law gives the students the to right to freedom of speech, however, in the universityís acceptable use policy for both nations, the students would not be able to post content of this nature on University web space.

Final Commentary

So, it seems that the Egyptian constitution is similar in many ways to the US constitution in that they support many of the same rights we do. However, the Egyptian constitution was amended in 1976 to contain the 11 Commandments of Censorship, whereby materials portraying alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, or the lottery as an acceptable source of income are considered illegal and hence can not be displayed on a website. This is very different from the US constitution. Under this new amendment the student from our scenario would be breaking the law, and hence it is only natural that the universities policy reflect the law. And so, there would not be a dilemma under the Egyptian constitution. On the other hand, the question can still be asked, "can a public university abridge the freedom of speech under the first amendment of the US constitution?"

References

Arab Republic of Egypt, "Part Three: Public Freedoms, Rights And Duties, The Constitution of the Arab republic of Egypt" [http://www.parliament.gov.eg/en_aconst43.htm#begin]

"Evaluation of Censorship in Egypt" [http://courses.cs.vt.edu/~cs3604/lib/Censorship/International/Egypt.htm]

The Middle East Times, "11 commandments of censorship" [http://www.metimes.com/cens/command.htm], September 1997.

Peter W. Martin, "The Constitution of the United States of America" [http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.text.html], March 1993.

Virginia Tech, "Acceptable Use Of Information Systems At Virginia Tech" [http://www.vt.edu/admin/policies/acceptuseguide.html], June 2000.

"The Communications Decency Act of 1996" [http://courses.cs.vt.edu/professionalism/Censorship/CDA96.text.html], July 1997

"How does the Supreme Court Act as the defender of the Constitution?" [http://www.socialstudieshelp.com/Lesson_17_Notes.htm]

Author Contact Information

Chad Langston, chad@vt.edu
William Boyle,
wboyle@vt.edu
Brenton Strickler,
ristrick@vt.edu
Dimitry Shiryae,
dshiryae@vt.edu
John Guanzon,
jguanzon@vt.edu


Last updated 2001/09/18