"Banned Websites Awareness Day" highlights how unnecessary internet filters impede on effective learning

For a student or teacher trying to view an educational video or search online for a news photo, the two most frustrating words in the English language are: “Access denied.”

Excessive school Internet filtering is an annoyance across all educational fields, but it’s especially problematic for teaching journalism. Learning how to gather and publish information online requires access to search engines, blogs and social-media sites – all of which are frequently, and unnecessarily, blocked by school filters.

It’s commonplace for a journalism student assigned to do research on effective blogging practices to encounter a total blockade of WordPress, the world’s most popular online publishing platform with more than 60 million user sites. Or for a student who needs a public-domain photo to accompany a slideshow to encounter the “this-site-blocked” screen of doom when attempting a Google Images search.

For a student with adequate Internet access at home, school filtering may be at worst an inconvenient delay. But for the estimated 30 percent of American households without access to a high-speed broadband Internet connection, it may make the difference in completing an assignment.

During “Banned Books Week,” the American Association of School Librarians has designated today – September 24 – as “Banned Websites Awareness Day,” in recognition of the growing impediment that unnecessary school filtering presents to effective learning.

Blocking access to Google, Wikipedia or Twitter in the name of protecting kids against seeking naked pictures is both futile (when most students are walking the hallways with faster computers in their shirt pockets than the ones in the school library) and legally unnecessary.

While schools are prone to blame Federal Communications Commission regulations when filtering practices are challenged, that’s rarely the right answer. The FCC does require, as a condition of receiving federal technology discounts, schools agree to block websites containing images “harmful to minors.” But

the Commission has unequivocally stated that the presence of some harmful content on some sub-pages does not justify blocking an entire domain – and specifically, that federal law does not require a wholesale ban on social media:

“Although it is possible that certain individual Facebook or MySpace pages could potentially contain material harmful to minors, we do not find that these Web sites are per se ‘harmful to minors’ or fall into one of the categories that schools and libraries must block.”

At times, website blocking can actually violate the law. The ACLU has successfully sued school districts for discriminatorily blocking access only to websites with information supportive of gay and lesbian students, while permitting access to sites that denounce homosexuality. (Because the First Amendment implies a right to receive information as well as the right to speak, a school restriction on access to information that is arbitrary or viewpoint-discriminatory can be challenged on constitutional grounds.)

What can students frustrated by excessive Internet filtering do? At a public school, use state open-records requests to obtain, and write about:

(1) Copies of any school policies, memos and internal emails between the principal’s office and the school district’s Information Technology department about the topic of Internet filtering.

(2) Any contracts or agreements with companies providing Internet filtering or monitoring services to the school or the district (as a bonus, you sometimes learn that the school is paying big bucks for a company to read students’ off-campus social media posts).

(3) Lists of “blacklisted” websites or words that trigger the school’s Internet filter (remembering that federal standards require screening only images and not words).

(The SPLC’s open-records letter generator provides a shortcut to create a request letter that can be emailed, faxed or hand-delivered to the school district headquarters and/or the principal.)

Is your school Internet filter getting in the way of teaching and research – or selectively blocking only one side of an issue? Have you written a story about filtering that’s worth sharing? Let the SPLC know.