As the number of schools wired to the Internet increases, so do fears overthe kinds of material students are able to access on classroom computers.Across the country, school boards and state legislatures are respondingto these fears by installing filtering software to limit the sites studentscan access.
Supporters of Internet filters say they are trying to prevent studentsfrom viewing sites with inappropriate material, such as pornography. Theyargue that by installing such software on school computers, children willbe protected from the negative aspects of the Internet.
Those opposed, however, are concerned that filtering software preventsstudents from accessing credible and educationally important sites. Oftenthis practice hinders student journalists by blocking sites they may needto research stories. Many opponents also believe that filtering the Interneton school computers violates the First Amendment rights of students.
In addition, opponents are concerned about viewpoint discriminationin deciding which sites to block. For instance, there have been numerouscomplaints that pro-choice sites have been blocked while anti-abortionsites have not. There have also been reports that sites offering emotionalsupport and health information to homosexuals have been unjustly blocked.
The number of schools in the U.S. connected to the Internet has grownenormously in a very short time — from 3 percent in 1994 to 63 percentin 1999, according to the Department of Education. Consequently, the debateover who should control the Internet access of others, particularly minors,has become just as widespread.
One of the most common methods of control is Internet filters. Manyvarieties of commercial filtering software can be purchased and installedon any computer. These programs contain an internal list of sites to blockand also use keywords to determine which sites to block. When a user requestsa specific site, the site is usually scanned to detect these keywords.
Congress is currently considering two bills designed to increase theuse of filtering software in public schools. The Children’s Internet ProtectionAct, S 97, sponsored by Sen. JohnMcCain, R-Arizona, would require any school receiving “universal serviceassistance” to install technology that “blocks material deemed harmfulto minors.” Universal service assistance is a service that offers discountson Internet access to schools that may not be able to afford it otherwise.It was included in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to ensure that allschools can receive quality, low-cost Internet access.
The Safe Schools Internet Act, HR 368,sponsored by Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., is currently pending in the Houseof Representatives. This bill would also require schools with Internetaccess to install a filtering method of some kind and would prohibit schoolsthat do not use filters from receiving universal service assistance.
A small number of states have passed laws mandating Internet filtersin schools, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizonaand South Dakota. Bills designed to require filtering software inpublic schools are pending in several states.
In New Jersey, Assemblyman Steve Corodemus, R-Monmouth, proposeda bill in March seeking to block sites that fall under any one of severalcategories, including those that “promote” intolerance, violence, “extremebehavior” or satanic cults. BillA-2196 would require libraries and schools to formulate a plan to blockobjectionable sites, including installing a filter of some kind.
A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representativesin January would require schools to adopt an “acceptable-use policy” forschool computers. HB2324 would require schools to use filtering software or connect toan Internet server that uses filters.
Other states have introduced comparable bills this session. HB543 inAlabamaand SB583 in Missouri would both require public schools that provideInternet access to either install filtering software or connect to an Internetserver that uses filters. Indiana introduced a similar bill in January,but it died.
A large number of individual school boards have also adopted Internet-filteringpolicies. New York City’s school board began requiring the city’s schoolsto install filters in 1999. The CensorwareProject, an anti-filtering organization, maintains a liston its Web site where students can report schools that filter the Internet.Students from Connecticut, Ohio, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida,Texas, Illinois and Washington have all reported the use of filters intheir schools.
But even as the popularity of Internet filters grows, so does criticismof the software. Opponents argue that teachers should be responsible for– and have the final say on — what is allowed in their classrooms.
“We feel that teacher supervision accomplishes every legitimate objectiveof maintaining discipline in a scholastic environment without adding theunnecessary element of bringing in a corporation to decide what peoplemay or may not see,” said Michael Sims, a member of The Censorware Project.
Peacefire, another group thatopposes the use of Internet filtering software, was created in 1996 torepresent people under the age of 18 in issues involving freedom of speechand the Internet. The organization’s Web site provides instructions onhow to disable several popular commercial filters, including X-Stop, I-Gear,BESS and Cyber Patrol. It also features a “blockedsite of the day,” where members list legitimate sites that have beenblocked by various filters. Examples of sites reported blocked includethe National Organization for Women and the Illinois Federation for HumanRights.
On the other side of the debate is David Burt, a librarian and founderof Filtering Facts, an organization that seeks to “educate the public andmedia about Internet software filters.” Burt said Internet filters in publicschools do not block educational material. He said studies have shown that63 percent of public schools use filters.
“Obviously they work well, or schools wouldn’t be adopting them,” Burtsaid. “They’d be going with policies instead … if filters made it impossiblefor children to do schoolwork.”
In his research on Internet filters in libraries, Burt said he foundthe amount of “useful information” that is blocked to be “tiny.”
Burt said he does not believe Internet filters violate students’ FirstAmendment rights, citing a Supreme Court decision that gave school librarieslimited authority to remove material they consider vulgar from their shelves.
“The school has a definite purpose, and pornography really has no placein that purpose, so I don’t think there is any free-speech issue with that,”he said.
Burt said he supports teachers and administrators ultimately havingthe power to override the filtering software if it blocks a site they consideruseful.
One example of filtering software gone awry occurred last year in theNew York City public schools. The city’s board of education purchased acommercial filter, I-Gear, and chose sites to block from a list of categories.The five categories chosen were sex, nudity, hate, racism and weapons.
As a result, anything that might somehow fall into one of those broadcategories was blocked. Students and teachers reported being denied accessto sites such as CNN, Planned Parenthood and sites dealing with topicssuch as AIDS and breast cancer. Even passages from the novel The Grapesof Wrath were blocked.
The Student Press Law Center’s own Web site has not been spared by Internetfilters. In one incident two years ago, after a high school in Ohiobegan using the filtering software BESS, student journalists discoveredthat it had blocked the SPLC Web site. While the rest of the school stilluses BESS, the journalism department’s computers are no longer filtered.
Administrators of the Davenport School District in Iowa reacheda compromise with opponents of filtering software in January. Last year,the filtering software WebSense was installed on all computers in the schooldistrict. After student journalists experienced problems accessing sitesthey needed to research articles, district officials agreed to remove thesoftware from one computer in each school’s journalism office. The softwarewas removed from one computer in each school’s library as well.
Bennett Haselton, creator and member of Peacefire, said the issue ofInternet filtering has simply become a political debate.
“Outside groups like the American Family Association, and some of theirfavorite Congressional representatives, have gotten wise to the publicrelations value of calling for mandatory blocking software in schools,”Haselton said. “Special-interest groups are using it as a political football.”