ACLU Says Internet Funding Proposal Would Put Big Brother in the Classroom

January 28, 1998 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — A plan that would require schools to block “indecent” Internet sites or lose federal funds for online programs is clearly unconstitutional, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

“This is nothing less than Big Brother in the classroom,” said Ann Beeson, ACLU National Staff Attorney and cyber-law expert. “We believe that educators, not Congress, should be the ones making decisions about what students can learn on the Internet.”

The plan, put forth by Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, has yet to appear as legislation, but a news release issued by his office this week says that his proposal would cut off funding to schools that do not implement restrictive Internet access policies.

Such a plan, the ACLU said, would mean that teachers could not assign Internet research on subjects such as female genital mutilation or the history of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights case — information that is typically blocked when filters are installed, and that is otherwise available on the shelves of school and public libraries.

McCain also suggested that school Internet policies could be based on local community standards and that schools could use filtering software to block “indecent” sites. But Beeson pointed out that such software is incapable of discerning between different community mores.

In a controversy over the use of Internet filters in California’s public libraries, she noted, the creators of the blocking program chosen by local officials admitted that it was impossible to customize a program to filter material considered “harmful to minors” as defined by state law.

“You can no more create a computer program to block out one community’s view of ‘indecency’ than you can devise a filtering program to block out unconstitutional proposals by members of Congress,” Beeson said. “Both may be desirable, but neither are possible.”

Instead of requiring blocking programs or other unconstitutional solutions, the ACLU has suggested that schools could establish content-neutral rules about when and how students can access the Internet. For instance, schools could require that Internet access be limited to school-related work.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down “indecency” restrictions for the Internet. Ruling in Reno v. ACLU, the Court struck down a federal Internet censorship law that contemplated restrictions on online speech. In its sweeping decision, issued last June, the Court confirmed that the Internet is analogous to books, not broadcast, and is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection. The ACLU was a lead plaintiff and litigator in the suit.

The Supreme Court also said that the government could not justify a blanket restriction on “indecency” to older minors — a term that encompasses socially valuable speech about safer sex, AIDS prevention and prisoner rape, artistic images, and even the card catalog of a major academic institution, Beeson said.

Sen. McCain’s proposal apparently comes in anticipation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hearings on the subject of Internet “porn” scheduled for February 10. The subsidies for school Internet hookups are provided through an FCC program that imposes payments on telecommunications carriers and their customers. As chairman of the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC, Senator McCain has criticized aspects of the subsidy program.

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