More than 30 years after the U.S. Supreme Court limited the ability of public school officials to censor books from school libraries, students and teachers in Rhode Island routinely face another type of censorship on a daily basis. Through the use of well intentioned but deeply flawed Internet filtering software, school administrators have been given a censorial power over classroom teaching that would never be tolerated for offline lessons – or for school library purchases. A bill I introduced this year, H-5652, requires that school districts adopt clear policies governing their use of filtering software, as well as procedures to allow teachers to quickly have websites unblocked, saving them time for classroom teaching.
The software, currently used and independently configured by every school district in Rhode Island, designates certain categories of websites – or even websites that simply mention specific words – off-limits to students when they use school computers to access the Internet. In discussions I have had with teachers and school librarians, I found the extent to which students were restricted from accessing online information that teachers found useful, and even included in their lesson plans, was extremely disconcerting. Resulting in disrupted lesson plans and lost learning opportunities.
If you think the use of this software was focused on barring students from visiting pornographic or other “adult” sites, you would be very mistaken. Among the many sites that teachers found blocked and interrupting their lesson plans – either due to flaws in the software or over-reaching implementation of the filters by school districts – were, to give just a few examples, those for the Smithsonian Institution, PBS Kids, National Stop Bullying Day, and a website on global warming.
In fact, more than half the school districts block students from accessing websites that, by the filtering software manufacturer’s own definition, “promote partisan historical opinion” or that include any information about undefined “anti-government groups.” A few school districts even block, or warn students about accessing, websites in such categories as “books and literature,” “social opinion” and “religion.” One of the filtering categories that a few school districts use – “Lifestyle & Culture” – has been known to block students’ access to pro-gay rights websites.
In addition, some school districts block websites based on keywords. This has led to such absurd situations as students being unable to access websites for a class assignment involving a synthetic polymer known as “polyvinyl alcohol” – because the search for information contained the word “alcohol.”
The process governing the use of filtering software is just as troubling. The vast majority of school districts provide no information to students or teachers as to what categories of websites are filtered. Further, there is no transparency in the decision-making by administrators as to what sites or categories of sites are blocked, allowing non-teaching school officials to make virtually unaccountable decisions regarding the use of the filtering software. As teachers find class assignments disrupted by the over-blocking of websites, the school officials get to use their own discretion to decide when or if to accede to teacher requests to unblock sites for daily lesson plans and activities.
These practices have a serious impact on students’ and teachers’ ability to access information in schools. Instead of teaching students about appropriate Internet use and enforcing school rules and policies regarding the use of the Internet during class time, Rhode Island’s public schools have used filtering software technology to truncate students’ access to a wealth of information available online. These public school censorship policies have also unduly hampered teachers trying to make use of new and exciting educational resources.
At best, unrestricted Internet filtering represents a serious barrier toward the robust education our students deserve; at worst, it amounts to a troubling violation of the First Amendment rights of both students and teachers. With an overabundance of energy spent trying to “protect” our students from what is available online, Rhode Island’s schools have limited their access to a wealth of available knowledge, and undermined a new technological tool that many teachers are seeking to embrace. We need to ensure our teachers are not wasting time and resources working to unblock the Smithsonian Institute sites and can focus on teaching our kids, and our kids can have the best resources to focus on their learning. Passing H-5652 will provide the framework so schools can make this happen.