Great ‘Fair Use’ teaching tool — if you can get it…

The SPLC’s lawyers frequently lecture about the doctrine of “fair use,” and how – properly applied – it can enable journalists to sample lawfully from copyright-protected content. One of the most effective teaching mechanisms we’ve discovered is a 10-minute video by Bucknell University professor Eric Faden and his students, “A Fair(y) Use Tale,” which mashes up clips from Disney films into an entirely new – and hilarious – artistic work. The video is viewable on YouTube — that is, if you’re lucky enough to be reading this blog away from school.

When we show the video to groups of journalism teachers, their reaction is initial delight, followed quickly by disappointment. Delight that such an engaging teaching tool exists – and disappointment that they’ll probably never get to use it. That’s because, in the vast majority of America’s schools, Internet filters ham-handedly block access to YouTube, social networking sites, and other potentially useful conduits of information.

While there may be sensible limits to what students can do with school computers during working hours, there are more effective technological (and educational) solutions than declaring entire sections of the Internet off-limits to everyone, teachers and students alike. If teachers cannot be trusted not to spend paid time watching cats riding Roombas, schools can address isolated violators without a meat-axe policy that deprives everyone of terrific educational content like Prof. Faden’s work. (The graybeards among us remember when a telephone in a classroom was considered an unnecessary expense and distraction, and now is regarded as a vital safety tool.)

As Justin Reich of explained in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, school filters no longer effectively keep students bent on distraction from accessing the Web on campus, since so many of them either (a) carry handhelds with Internet access or (b) know how to hack their way around the barricades. But filters do keep law-abiding teachers and students from doing research on subjects screened by filters that don’t know the difference between Dick Cheney and … well, you know.

To be sure, students need to be educated early and often about safe and responsible Internet use – but schools don’t help their credibility by labeling everything on YouTube or FaceBook with a skull-and-crossbones. You don’t teach drivers’ ed by telling kids never to take the car out of the driveway, and you can’t teach media literacy that way, either.