Soup, Sandwich, and Censorship — Rethinking Policy at Panera Bread

by Bill Taverner

You used to be able to get all three – soup, sandwiches, and censorship – at Panera Bread. Five years ago, the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, MO, ran a story that described my experiences with censorship at the restaurant chain and other public buildings that purported to offer “free wi fi”. Seemingly worried that their customers might masturbate while reading an AASECT conference program or salivate while interpreting the research design of a Journal of Sex Research article, these establishments denied access to the websites of key organizations in sexology, including this blog and other websites run by The Center for Family Life Education.

Despite the unreasonable and inflexible policies of these establishments, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I continued to visit my local Panera Bread restaurant and do much of my work there. It’s convenient. It’s 45 miles closer than my office. It has free (if restricted) wi fi, and my IT department has taught me some tricks to bypass the censorship. Oh, and the sandwiches are good.

Still, every morning, I have tortured myself by making a ritual of checking key organizational websites, only to be blocked by embarrassing messages on my screen that alert anyone nearby that I am probably searching for porn.
This morning, I tried to access The CFLE’s conference website, and, to my astonishment, I was allowed in! I checked the other previously restricted websites listed in the article. AASECT? Bing! Sex, Etc.? Yes! Marty Klein’s Sexual Intelligence? No problemo!
What happened?
A few months ago, the (new) manager of the local restaurant struck up a conversation with me. After seeing me here day after day, she asked me what I was working on, and I told her I was writing a teaching manual to help people avoid sexually transmitted infections. I told her about my troubles accessing information online, and gave her a copy of the Riverfront Times article about Panera Bread censorship. I also gave her a copy of Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Human Sexuality, in which Ryan McKee and I wrote about the difficulties Panera Bread created for our research on that book.
Apparently, the message was received, and made its way up the corporate ladder.
So, next time you visit your local Panera Bread lift your coffee mug (or soup bowl) to toast free speech! (And double check the wi fi!)