Rhode Island ACLU Report Finds Prevalent Internet Censorship in Public Schools

March 11, 2013 12:15 pm

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The websites of PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet, a website on global warming, and a popular book reading recommendation site are among the many online sites that students and teachers have been unable to access at public schools in Rhode Island due to the use of so-called Internet filtering software.

That is one of the findings of a report issued today by the ACLU of Rhode Island, which documents how use of this flawed software has hindered teachers from making use of the Internet to educate students and has hampered students from accessing relevant information in the classroom. The report offers a number of recommendations to ameliorate the harm caused by these programs, including the passage of state legislation to promote transparency in the use of the filters.

Internet filtering programs block certain categories of websites – or even websites that simply 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’ over-extensive embrace of it, has a significant impact on classroom teaching. The ACLU report, “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public

Education,” notes that allowing school administrators “virtually unbridled discretion to determine how this technological censor will be used gives them a power over classroom teaching that would never be tolerated for offline lessons.”

Through an open records request, the ACLU examined filtering software policies and practices in Rhode Island’s school districts and found:

  • Among the many varied sites that teachers have found blocked and interrupting their lesson plans — either due to flaws in the filtering software or the over-reaching implementation of filters by school districts — are the Smithsonian website, the Goodreads.com book recommendation site, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet, a website on global warming, a YouTube video on Social Security, and the websites of PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day.
  • More than half the school districts block students from accessing websites that, by the software manufacturer’s own definition, “promote partisan historical opinion” or that include any information about undefined “anti-government groups.”
  • A few school districts block, or warn students about accessing, websites in such obviouslyappropriate categories as “books and literature,” “social pinion,” and “religion.”
  • One of the filtering categories that a few school districts use – “Lifestyle & Culture” – has been known to block students’ access to pro-gay rights websites.
  • Use of so-called “safe search” keyword blocking by districts has led to such absurd situations as students being unable to access websites for a class assignment involving a synthetic polymer known as “polyvinyl alcohol” — because the search for information contained the word “alcohol.”

The report also criticized the lack of meaningful policies by school districts to govern this

intrusive censorship regime:

  • While requiring students and staff to adhere to “acceptable use” computer policies, the vast majority of school districts provide no public information as to what categories of websites are filtered.
  • There is no transparency in the decision-making by administrators as to what sites or categories of sites will be blocked, allowing non-teaching school officials to make virtually unaccountable decisions regarding the use of the filtering software.
  • Even as teachers find class assignments disrupted by over-reaching blocking of websites, school officials appear to exercise unrestrained discretion to decide when to accede to teacher requests to unblock sites.

The ACLU report recommends a number of actions to address the consequent serious impact on students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights and on their right to access information in schools. Among the report’s recommendations:

  • School districts should filter only those categories required by federal law (in general, visual depictions of sexual conduct that fit under the definition of “obscene for minors”), and those required to protect the school computer system (e.g., blocking spyware and viruses, limiting excessive bandwidth, etc.).
  • School districts should have in place written procedures to quickly respond to teacher requests to unblock sites, with a presumption that any such request should be granted.
  • Information about the categories that are being blocked by school officials, and documentation of their responses to any requests for blocking and unblocking sites, should be readily accessible to teachers, students and any other interested parties.
  • Rather than focusing on censorship, schools should spend more time educating students on Internet safety.

The report’s author, ACLU of RI Policy Associate Hillary Davis, said today: “The excessive use of Internet filters by schools has seriously infringed on the First Amendment rights of students and teachers on a daily basis. Internet filtering has censored, rather than expanded, education and placed serious barriers between students and a robust understanding of the world around them. In order to best serve our students, use of filtering software must be strictly limited, with teachers able to lift the filter whenever necessary.”

Rep. Art Handy has introduced legislation, H-5652, that would require school districts to adopt clear policies governing their use of filtering software, as well as procedures to allow teachers to quickly have sites unblocked. The ACLU report is available on the ACLU’s website, www.riaclu.org.

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