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Touro Students Fighting Web Limits

Touro Students Fighting Web Limits

Upset about what they view as excessive restriction of Internet use at a Queens campus of Touro College, some students are bypassing a filter system at the Lander College for Men’s dormitory that blocks search engines.

Although greater access is allowed elsewhere at the Orthodox college in Kew Gardens Hills, the filter is meant to prevent students from accessing content through the dorm’s free high-speed access system that the administration deems morally inappropriate or likely to cause distraction from learning.

"Some students have turned to their more tech-savvy friends for help on reaching Web sites with search engines despite the firewall," said Yonatan Freedman, a first-year student.

Freedman, while agreeing with the need to block pornographic or gambling sites, has become an activist against the search engine restriction.

He said the filter program also hampers students’ research and coursework.

"It impedes anything I have to do," said Freedman, 22, an Upper West Side native. "I couldn’t go to to look up a word because it has a search engine. I was traveling to Washington, D.C., and wanted to look for a minyan and couldn’t do that."

(In an interview from his dorm room, Freedman later acknowledged that he could search the Web from The New York Times site.)

Rabbi Moshe Sokol, the dean at Lander, said the college might take steps to improve the filter’s efficiency if it turned out that students could bypass it.

Lander College, which offers religious and secular studies, is geared toward Orthodox students who want to continue Torah learning while preparing for a career in such fields as computer science, accounting, biology and political science.

Since its inception in 1998, the college, which now has 165 undergraduates, has had a policy of restricting Internet access. This semester, the college added a filter program for the dorm that shuts out popular search engines such as Lycos, Yahoo and Google, as well as numerous other Web sites.

"As an academic institution we vigorously advocate academic freedom and research, and also want our students to be able to do that conveniently," said Rabbi Sokol. "On the other hand, because it has this serious downside, we’ve had to balance those two concerns."

The dean added that students are able to visit Google freely at the campus library and computer labs, which prevent access to pornographic and gaming sites.

But Freedman said there were too few computers available in the library, which has limited hours, and those in the computer lab take too long to log on.

Students met with college administrators this month to discuss their differences over the policy. One student told the administrators that while working late on a report in his room, after the closing of the computer lab, he visited a site recommended by a chemistry professor, only to find the filter blocked him from searching for data there.

When students suggested that the college remove the filter and simply monitor the type of searches they requested, administrators said there were too many searches to monitor.

Following that meeting, the college agreed to extend the computer lab’s hours to 1 a.m., but stood by the filter policy.

Rabbi Sokol said the same filter system was in use at nonreligious universities and that Congress required similar programs in public libraries.

The controversy is the latest manifestation of ambivalence in Orthodox circles over the Internet.

Yeshivot like the outreach-oriented Aish HaTorah use the Web to promote Jewish learning, and several sites even offer daily Talmudic learning online. Orthodox-themed blogs, or home-based Web journals, are proliferating. Most modern yeshivot and day schools have their own sites.

But more stringent rabbinic leaders have strongly cautioned against Web use. In the yeshiva community of Lakewood, N.J., a rabbinic council banned the Internet for males in the community without a halachic dispensation for business or other reasons.

"Like all technology, this presents challenges to a religious Jew," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, which has avoided creating a Web site to avoid giving its imprimatur to Internet use.

Rabbi Sokol stressed that the college had a "fiduciary responsibility" to parents who entrust the college with their sons, many of whom are minors, to act in their best interests. He noted that the Internet hookup is a service provided by the college.

"There is a difference between what they can do on their own and what we provide them," he said.

But Rabbi Sokol said campus policy also forbids accessing any pornographic or gambling sites in the dormitory, even through independent means like wireless or dial-up access.

"The great majority of students are trustworthy, but temptations are such that all of us have to be concerned about where our eyes lead us," he said. "We don’t want to provide a temptation for those who might have difficulty."

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