Internet filters hinder student journalists, author of new report says

Student journalists and others trying to do Internetresearch at school or in other libraries are hitting brick walls across thecountry, according to a newreport.

The NYU Brennan Center forJustice released its new study this month,Internet Filters: APublic Policy Report, which discusses the overall ineffectiveness of onlinefilter programs designed to block materials deemed obscene or otherwise”harmful” to minors. The report is a compilation of nearly 100studies completed by various researchers and interestgroups.

Internet filter programs are required under the federalChildren’s Internet Protection Act, signed into law by President BillClinton in 2000, for all schools and libraries that receive federal funding. TheU.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in 2003 despite the American LibraryAssociation’s attempt to have it declared unconstitutional.

ButMarjorie Heins, co-author of the report and founder of the Free ExpressionPolicy Project at the Brennan Center, said such filters are often a hindrance tostudent journalists and others attempting to do electronic research.

”Filters have a huge impact on students, journalists andanybody else trying to do research on the Internet, where lot of research isgoing on these days,” she said.

Heins said filter programs usea ”mechanized” process based on keywords, so many educational Websites with information about drugs, alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases andother topics are blocked without actual human review. Other sites, such as thosecontaining information about gay and lesbian issues, are sometimes blockedbecause of biases among program writers and administrators, Heinssaid.

To help limit these filters, Heins said schools and librariescan opt to use programs that allow the activation of only a single filteringcategory, such as ”sexually explicit,” rather than blocking a rangeof topics. Librarians and educators also can become more informed about CIPA,which allows them to turn off filters for ”bona fide research.”Heins said some libraries also have decided to forgo federal funding in order tokeep the Internet open.

”A lot of people think this is an oldhat issue, that filters are just a fact of life, just get used to it,”Heins said. ”But the fact that they are a fact of life makes it all themore important that people have the information, and there is no reason that badlaws like CIPA can’t be reviewed and revisited and repealed. There is noreason why more schools and libraries can’t bite the bullet and take astand about this type ofcensorship.”

by Whitney McFerron, SPLC staff writer