In Rhode Island Schools, Censorship Continues Online

Imagine a school administrator telling a high school political science teacher that a whole range of timely topics — for example, medical marijuana, terrorism in the Middle East, gun control, or even politics in general — was off-limits for class discussion. The pedagogical absurdity of it, not to mention the upending of academic freedom it embodies, would seem obvious to most. In school districts across the country, however, a similar type of censorship takes place in the classroom every day, with little dissent.

The censorship takes place invisibly, through the use of internet filtering programs that block certain categories of websites — or even websites that mention specific words — when students use school computers to access the internet. Although primarily designed to prevent access to pornography, the deeply flawed software, and school districts’ widespread embrace of it, has a significant impact on classroom teaching.

In Rhode Island, the ACLU has issued two reports, one in 2013 and the other last month, examining school internet censorship in the state’s public schools, and the results are jarring. In 2013, the ACLU found that, whether by design or just due to the inevitably clumsy nature of such filtering, teachers and their students were blocked from viewing such varied and innocuous websites as those for PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet, and a website on climate change, among many others. One science teacher expressed frustration that a lesson plan of his was ruined when students couldn’t search for information about “polyvinyl alcohol” on their computers because the term contained the blocked word “alcohol.”

Four years later, unfortunately, we found that little had changed. An open records request revealed that school districts continue to block sites that prevent students from researching all sorts of topical subjects. Some districts took the censorship to ridiculous extremes — using their filtering software to block sites designated as “political,” “news,” and even “dictionary.”

Fortunately for Rhode Island educators and students, this abysmal state of affairs may soon change. As a result of ACLU lobbying, the state legislature passed a law last year requiring all school districts to adopt and implement clear, written, publicly available Internet filtering policies. The policies must specify the categories of websites that are blocked, explain the basis for blocking them, and provide a procedure for teachers to request that sites be unblocked in a timely manner. The new law also requires districts to conduct an annual review of their policies in order to address problems of overblocking. In case there was any doubt about the purpose of these requirements, the law makes clear that the goal is to “promote academic freedom in the classroom.”

A few months ago, the state commissioner of education, working in collaboration with the ACLU, prepared a model internet filtering policy that school districts could use as a template in order to comply with the new law, and some have already begun adopting it.

This is a major step in the right direction.

The internet offers a world of educational opportunities that Rhode Island’s students have been denied because of overzealous filtering software. This new law will go a long way toward ensuring that teachers can bring their full range of resources to the classroom and that students can make use of the wide array of information that the internet puts at their fingertips. This law can also serve as a model for other school districts across the country to consider adopting.

In 1982, a U.S. Supreme Court decision declared that schools could not remove books from libraries “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’” It is time to bring this concept into the 21st century and halt the widespread blocking of online educational resources by school bureaucrats who seem all too eager to employ this unwieldy censorship technology in the shadows.

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Anonymous

No issue is as important as this one. It's a colossal problem and it's public education itself. Public schools are in fact government schools, indoctrination centers if you will. Currently, the Education Savings Account (ESA) is the most viable solution. The underpinning of this problem is government dominated education lured by unions that exist for only one purpose: money. Unions take money from teachers and give it to democrats. Democrats take from the union and give it to the teachers (tenure, guarantee against competition, growing salaries, short work schedules and all kinds of other perquisites). Public teaching has been fundamentally transformed into an enormous entitlement and dispensing entitlements is the heart of the democrat strategy. It cannot be said too many times: the absence of competition is the problem.

According to a recent study, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program that provides vouchers, increased college enrollment rates by about 6 percentage points for students who participated, even minimally. For those who were in the program four or more years, college enrollment was as much as 17 points higher. Opponents of school choice should know that these students disproportionately come from low income families, mostly from bad public schools and who did poorly on tests. The source of this information is the left-leaning Urban Institute founded by LBJ.

ESA is a viable solution because it provides school choice for everyone. Not the teachers' idea of choice and certainly not the union's idea. Most know what's needed is a robust free market filled with all kinds of accredited schools, able to deliver general subjects as well as all kinds of specialties, including religion, athletics, science and the arts. Limiting government's responsibility to state accreditation, a flourishing ESA system provides such a marketplace. Everyone knows taxes should be returned to parents in ways that are spendable in any accredited school by parents according to their choice. And currently, an ESA system provides every student with the same amount regardless of school taxes paid. It levels the playing field. Targeting religious schools is a half-baked criticism because breaking away from the public education behemoth must start somewhere.

A free enterprise education system eliminates the ability to trample one civil right by supporting an opposing civil right. Perhaps more importantly, it precludes indoctrination of students to unwelcome political agendas. For these immature minds, public education suggests a powerful preference for a system that's totally alien to a constitutional republic. The public school system is very persuasive with its mandatory system. Currently, it feeds the masses at food courts that would make any commercial mall proud -- with really bad food that kids hate and few would buy. It transports everyone to everywhere on the largest mass transit system in the world consisting of half a million buses, that cost about $50 billion. By the way, due to rising costs, a number of schools now charge $300-$500 per pupil, annually to ride on these "taxpayer funded" vehicles. It funds exotic musical instruments used only by a handful of kids who often already have plenty of private money. It provides expert and very expensive facilities and training for the professional sports industry that later employs only an infinitesimally small percentage of students who often don’t graduate.

Expelled students currently have nothing to lose because the cost is assessed whether they learn, graduate or ever return. The primary problem with our current system is it faces no competition. It’s a monopoly in a nation where monopoly is considered a criminal enterprise for everyone else. In America, pupils are forced to attend at the point of a gun but are not protected with equivalent force. Parents, non-parents and businesses are forced to pay or lose their homes and businesses. Additionally all are required by the state to pay forever, long after their kids are grown and even if they had no children, and none are allowed to opine on the system chosen by the federal government. ESA provides an escape from the propaganda mills we call public schools and the government funding scheme that everyone knows is brazen communism. Refusal to escape is due to simple resistance to change and perhaps fear of failure. Our founders weren't too frightened of a big enemy and we shouldn't be either.

Anonymouse

This is the heart of conservative angst: they’re afraid that their ideology is losing adherents, that they’re an endangered kind and can’t survive intact in the marketplace of ideas. So instead of questioning their ideas, they lash out at perceived enemies that are hurting their ideology. As a result, schools, run by both conservative AND liberal governments/school boards are seen as sites of indoctrination. So instead of giving kids a rich environment of intellectual diversity that challenges their assumptions, something necessary to a rigorous education, they want to put them in schools they believe will indoctrinate students according to their own beliefs.

Note that Anonymous above me kept on mentioning Democrats. They don’t care about good education, they care about their petty politics, the imminent crisis their ideology is encountering, and blaming that crisis on everything under the sun except the strength of the ideas themselves.

The best education is one that we can all, conservatives and liberals, hold accountable through our local governments and school boards, not education accountable to only a board of directors that they can’t fire. Imagine having to deal with college administrators, but at every level of schooling. What happens if the only schools in an area are religious? Do the kids from irreligious families have to go far out of their way? School choice will help some and hurt far more, pulling funding far away from where it’s actually needed.

Sure there are problems with some public schools but those problems are partly a function of long-standing inequities in wealth and access to jobs as well as engineered campaigns to defund and interfere with public schools. Instead of becoming shills for the private education industry, “school choice” advocates could work with educators to improve public schools by borrowing ideas from private education AND increasing funding.

Anonymous

Your claims seem valid and somewhat thought out until someone actually reads it and realize this is completely unsubstantiated garbage. You're literally just stringing together big words to write sentences that, while grammatically correct, make ZERO contextual or logical sense with no basis in reality.

Anonymous

If ONLY you knew what you're talking about. Pure nonsense.

Anonymous

This looks like someone redid the "Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash" procedure with a predictive text program trained on well-written opinion pieces instead of children's books. Yeah, there are structural similarities and familiar recurring phrasings one might recognize from reasonable arguments, but in the end it's all just thrown together in a way that makes no sense whatsoever. I'm not sure if this rant was authored by a pretty impressive artificial intelligence, or a really disappointing human one.

Anonymous

This is the biggest problem for those students whose only access to the internet is at school. Those with access at home, being more well off, get a wider range of information. Glad to see that this is being changed so those that have less will be able to get decent information.

Dr. Timothy Leary

The only people who have freedom of speech are parrots.

Dr. Timothy Leary

The truth is that no one really has freedom of speech. The A.C.L.U. is not posting (censoring) my comments here. As I have stated previously the only people who have freedom of speech are parrots.

Transparent

All societies move to the left or at least to more permissiveness. What was not permitted this year will be allowed next year and normative the year after that. You can fight against it and win 'battles' but you cannot win the war.

We have to learn how to manage this movement by implementing an adaptable and continuously relevant legal system and by selectively incorporating those changing mores and values.

BJL

I do not have any civil rights at all. I do not have freedom of speech. If I had freedom of speech, I would not have the Mayor of Warwick and his henchmen trying to have me killed.

I would have been heard when I complained about being harassed, abused, molested, threatened, assaulted and battered by Rhode Island police, the Warwick firefighters local 2748 and and the Warwick Fire Department.

I would have been heard Now I have PTSD no healthcare and no treatment for injuries I received as a Warwick fire fighter.

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