(originally published on Boundless on October 3, 2012 during Banned Book Awareness Week)
Any search for Emily Dickinson is blocked on my school server. Because her name has the word “dick” in it. Yes. Seriously. So that means Dick Cheney, Josh Reddick, Reddick, MA…they are all blocked too. We can still look up Massachussetts, cockroach, and the Constitution, but I have yet to bring that to anybody’s attention in case they decide to block all sites that may have unintended anatomical vernacular in them.
This may seem ridiculous to those who do not work in public schools, but unfortunately it is an all-too-common reality. This summer at a nationwide conference, a teacher told me how her school had blocked Google. Isn’t that like blocking the Internet entirely?
Internet filtering came into heavy play when the Child Internet Protective Act (CIPA) was passed in 2000. Under CIPA, any schools that receive public funding in the ways of reduced-fee Internet access must “block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) pornography; or (c) harmful to minors.” But in recent years, schools have taken this simple filter requirement and overstepped their bounds, with the end results being that they are blocking educationally valuable websites. In a time when students should be able to turn to the Internet to further their education, they are instead shut down.
For example, many art teachers have voiced concern about being able to access museum websites that have been blocked because of potential nudity in the artwork. Foreign language teachers have been frustrated that they are not able to use the multitude of resources available on Youtube to help further immerse their students in language studies. Health teachers find that their students cannot research issues that pertain to sexuality and the reproductive systems. And English teachers? Well, no Emily Dickinson.
The impact that overzealous filters have on classrooms became clear to me a couple of weeks ago when I set out to teach my students about the election. We opened up the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney websites, with the goal to watch the commercials each campaign had released, take notes, and then fact check before drawing conclusions. However, we discovered that each campaign has their commercials rooted in Youtube–a site blocked at many schools, including ours. We were at a standstill. I asked the kids to watch the videos at home, but some of them did not have fast enough Internet–including me (we live in a rural area), so we all couldn’t bring the same information to the table on the next day.
There have been other times when Internet blocking has hindered research: a student who was researching the history of the Ku Klux Klan after reading Karen Hesse’s Witness had to do most of his research at home. A student writing a persuasive essay about same sex marriage was unable to find resources at school. Students doing a project on Greek mythology were unable to access many sites because of the nude gods and goddesses.
This is an issue of first amendment rights. So says the US Supreme Court when talking about previous censorship issues. Such statements that came from the Court include: The right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom (Board of Education v. Pico ). The Court also recognized in Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville (1975) that speech…cannot be suppressed solely to protect the young from ideas or images that a legislative body thinks unsuitable for them. It was also declared in 2001 by an appellate court (American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick) that people are unlikely to become well-functioning, independent-minded adults and responsible citizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble. The ACLU, has, however, begun to fight internet censorship in schools. They have backed (and won) several lawsuits against states whose schools filter LGBT-friendly websites. If students are not able to research LGBT college scholarships, look for resources and advice, or reach out to communities that advocate for them, we are denying them the guidance and support they deserve. When I attempted to get on the PFLAG website at my school, I discovered that it was a forbidden site–the category? Lesbian and Gay Issues. One doesn’t even have to read between the lines: issues with lesbians and gays are banned. End of story.
Filters are not perfect–and while their intentions are admirable, their inherent flaw is that they either over block or under block. In the case of my school, I found, they do both. Because, while I cannot look up Emily Dickinson, I discovered that it is possible to uncover a number of unsavory sexual accounts and access pornographic sites. I won’t go into detail here; we’ll just leave it at this: while playing with search words to see what was blocked and what was not for this article, I was educated on many other things that made me blush and close the page immediately.
The need to protect our students from dangerous or overtly pornographic material is as real as schools’ needs to access federal funding for affordable Internet. So what do we do?
CIPA actually leads us to a solution. Its guidelines say, “Schools subject to CIPA have two additional requirements: 1) their Internet safety policies must include monitoring the online activities of minors; and 2) as required by the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, they must provide for educating minors about appropriate online behavior.” So supervise our students and then teach them how to be responsible on the Internet? That seems feasible.
But a huge part of the issue is communication between tech directors and teachers. ”I believe no single person trained in technology has the appropriate qualifications or even sufficient understanding of faculty and student needs to be that enforcer,” says Michael Gras, chief of technology in the White Oak Independent School District in Texas. “Furthermore, I don’t believe the technologist has the right to enforce his or her perceived standards. What is blocked and unblocked should be shaped by the expressed, not perceived needs of the users.” He goes on to say that his filtering system is fluid–that sites are blocked and unblocked based on frequent communication with the teachers in the district. Scott Floyd, an instructional technologist also from White Oak, states that “Filtering is most effective when the person controlling it consults with the curriculum department regularly…[t]o leave the decision in one person’s hand (generally not an educator) to decide what gets through and what does not makes absolutely no sense.”
Lynn Sutton, a university librarian who conducted a study in Michigan high schools concluded that, “Better communication between technology staff and classroom teachers is the key to ensuring that school and library Internet filters…do not preclude students from accessing legitimate educational materials.” She goes on to say that it is not the filters that are really the problem, it is “how the technology is administered and applied” and is mainly attributed to “a lack of communication between administrators and busy classroom teachers.”
Most resounding to me, after hearing teachers’ laments from around the country at previous conferences was that “[t]here was a significant disconnect between the district’s technology administrators and the classroom, which resulted in an undercurrent of frustration and hopelessness at effecting change.” Even in our own schools, teacher voices are not being heard.
As of now, no school has yet to face the Supreme Court over CIPA laws. But Teresa Chmara, in her article “Minors’ First Amendment Rights: CIPA & School Libraries” forebodingly advises schools, “Given that minors have explicit First Amendment rights, it would be prudent for schools–and particularly school libraries–to have a system in place to unblock sites that do not constitute obscenity, child pornography, or material harmful to minors.” Chmara also points out that the Court has been clear that while schools have explicitly been given the responsibility to restrict material that are pornographic, obscene, or harmful, they cannot deem “material…’harmful to minors’ if it has any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value when evaluated as a whole.”
In the end, after all the rhetoric and research has been put aside, the solution is simple: school policies should include tech agreements between students, families, and schools that emphasize personal responsibility; all teachers who use the Internet in their classrooms should teach Internet safety; and technology directors should allow their filter systems to become fluid, guided by teacher needs. Standing still in a time when invention and access race ahead, holding on to misguided policies that are driven by fear with a leaden fist will do nothing but hold us back.