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.

View comments (15)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

freedom of speech DOES NOT MEAN, NO CONSEQUENCES. how you haven't learned that yet, i will never understand.

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.

I should point out that your state constitution prohibits the best business practices of the state.

.

Some Random Student

I have read the article and I can relate to this with my school WiFi. There was one incident last when the school blocked YouTube for some reason, but that undermines my point. Some links from Twitter pages of some organizations I follow simply refuse to load and some harmless blocked sights have vague explanations as to why they are blocked (“Private Websites” or “Private Forums”). Honestly, I would like to know why exactly they are blocked.

Karen

With fake news, net neutrality & the willy-nilly erasure of US gov't websites always threatening, we need to remember to keep the books, magazines, maps, VHSs, DVDs . . . Young people need to know how to learn information when it is not available via Google searches (which, as a college professor, I know that they they rarely know how to use well).

Anonymous

Not only that, but with people and groups continually revising history, news and even science, without physical books etc., there is a real possibility that older "facts" instead of just getting revisions, will actually be lost.

Pages

Stay Informed