Timm Pilcher, adviser of The Challenger student newspaper at Hoover High School in Des Moines, Iowa, wants to know why he should let an outside party limit what his students report on.
The same question is on the minds of many student media advisers as public schools across the country take steps to meet new federal requirements for blocking ‘harmful material’ on the Internet.
High school journalists like those at The Challenger and advisers like Pilcher are facing the reality of trying to research stories using a World Wide Web that is restricted, often even more than the vague law requires. This sometimes means finding creative ways to get around the filters.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act, CIPA, is a sweeping law signed by President Clinton in 2000 meant to keep online pornography out of the reach of children in public classrooms and libraries. The law says that public libraries and schools must install filtering technology on all their computers to receive ‘E-rate’ discounts and special prices for computer equipment and Internet access.
CIPA has been at the forefront this fall as the law’s requirements have officially gone into effect in public schools. Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality in libraries is awaiting a hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 73 percent of public schools and 43 percent of libraries now use some type of filtering.
Opposition to the law’s implementation in schools has come from students, educators and free-speech advocates alike.
Many maintain that CIPA’s fundamental problem is that it compels schools to install filtering technology that does not do what it is supposed to. They say filtering software blocks sites that do not contain content banned by the law and misses sites that do.
The effects of CIPA on high school student newspapers are not difficult to see, according to Will Doherty, media relations director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and executive director of the Online Policy Group. Because student journalists research a broad range of topics and because they often use the Internet to do so, they will find filters limit their ability to report news, said Doherty.
The Challenger has relatively limited filters on its computers because Pilcher and a few other teachers made an appeal to Des Moines Independent School District officials.
Originally, Pilcher said, the software program the school district installed on all classroom computers blocked 34 categories of information, some of which were ‘alcohol, obscenity, politics, news and entertainment.’
In working with the district’s information technology department, Pilcher said a few teachers’ efforts narrowed the list to a more reasonable 11, though problems still arise.
‘We just did a story on computer games, and all the gaming sites were blocked,’ said Pilcher. He said he e-mailed the person who monitors the filter and had that category unblocked temporarily.
John Bowen, adviser of The Lakewood Times at Lakewood High School in Ohio said his school district agreed to exempt the student newspaper from filters because of concerns about faulty filtering.
Bowen said when filters were first being implemented three years ago he appealed to the school district for an exemption based on the newspaper’s status as a forum for student free expression.
Reporters for The Lakewood Times have passwords that will disable the filters for a period of three hours at a time, said Bowen, who is also a member of the Student Press Law Center’s corporate board of directors.
‘We feel as a newsgathering organization, we can’t limit what students gather as news. They ought to have access to all levels of information,’ said Bowen.
According to Doherty, filtering technology is not likely to ever be able to do the job CIPA demands of it.
‘Human thought and language is simply too complex for any filter to understand the context of what is being blocked,’ said Doherty. ‘There is no quick technological fix to what is a societal problem.’
A study recently released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation supports Doherty’s assessment.
Kaiser reported that the more restrictive a school’s filtering software is, the more likely it is to block information related to important health issues including depression, suicide and sexually transmitted diseases. When set to their most restrictive, the report said, the six filters they tested blocked 24 percent of the 3,500 sites used in the study.
The Online Policy Group will soon release its own study, the first comprehensive look at filters’ effectiveness in existing school curricula. Preliminary results have shown that the law’s detractors might be right. The study examined the effects of N2H2’s Bess and SurfControl, two commonly used software products, by running online searches of all topics from the state-mandated curricula for California, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
Preliminary results showed that schools that implement Internet blocking software, even with the least restrictive settings, will block tens of thousands of Web pages inappropriately either because the Web pages are categorized incorrectly or because the Web pages simply do not merit blocking.
Such cases of ‘overblocking’ are a major point of contention for Doherty, who points to the fact that many of the filters block categories of information that are created by software companies but are not even mentioned in CIPA.
Although CIPA states that the required filtering technology is supposed to block material that is ‘harmful to minors,’ it also narrowly defines ‘harmful to minors’ as visual depictions that are, or are very nearly, legally obscene depictions of sex or excretion.
‘I can’t emphasize it enough, [filtering programs] block vast swaths of the Internet that are totally unrelated to anything that any law requires,’ said Doherty.
Doherty said he worries that school administrators think that the law is broader than it actually is.
‘I think school administrators think [CIPA] says, ‘let’s stop things that are harmful to minors.’ But actually the law doesn’t have anything to do with gambling or weapons or anything like that,’ said Doherty. Schools that have filters set only to restrict pornography will have fully complied with CIPA.
Federal officials that enforce CIPA say they do not dictate how a school filters its computers. They only ensure that some form of CIPA-compliant filtering technology is in place.
The schools and libraries division of the Universal Services Administrative Company, USAC, controls the distribution of technology-related government funding and discounts, including those handed out to schools that comply with CIPA.
According to Melvin Blackwell, vice president of external communications for USAC, schools must certify that they have filtering technology on all school computers or are working toward that goal to be eligible for E-rate funds or discounts under CIPA.
Blackwell said that enforcement of CIPA will take the form of random ‘audits of beneficiaries,’ in which certified schools will be audited.
According to Blackwell, CIPA does make some exceptions for libraries in the context of ‘legitimate research’ where a filter could effectively be ‘turned off,’ but there is no such acceptable exemption for public schools.
‘The law is pretty straightforward in saying that if the school takes E-rate money, all school computers have filtering technology in place all the time,’ said Blackwell.
That would mean that ‘turning filters off’ or otherwise allowing for unfettered access to the Internet on a school computer for a student journalist, faculty member or even a school administrator would be a violation of CIPA, said Blackwell.
That also might mean that The Lakewood Times violates CIPA with its password system for bypassing school filters and may not be eligible for federal technology funds.
Bowen, who has taught at Lakewood for 33 years, said he feels strongly about the student newspaper’s role as an open forum and that the school district’s interpretation of the law is a correct one.
Both Bowen and Pilcher advisers also say that filters have no place whatsoever in their classrooms.
‘The best filter is the human brain,’ said Bowen.
‘If we’re supposed to be teachers, we shouldn’t be letting some organization that has put together some questionable standards interfere with students’ ability to learn,’ he said.
Pilcher, meanwhile, stresses responsibility in his students. ‘Teachers need to be aware of what their students are doing,’ said Pilcher. ‘We can’t teach responsible use [of the Internet] if we have filters on classroom computers.’
20 U.S.C. SEC. 9101 et seq.; 47 U.S.C. Sec. 254