by Shelley Blundell.
Of all the ways school officials can censor information from students; one of the more controversial (and deeply flawed) ways is through the use of Internet filters on school-accessible technologies. As Shearer (2010) explains, after the passage of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000, many public schools and public libraries in the United States were required to apply filters to their Internet connections in order to comply with federal guidelines in the area of federally supported technology funds.
Since the institution of CIPA, filters in both public schools and public libraries have been applied very differently across the country, depending on state mandates in this area.
Specific state Internet filtering laws can be found here. Although some filters are imposed at the district level (and therefore individual schools have almost no say in controlling what is and is not filtered), many are applied at the school level and, as various studies have found (Brown, 2006; Guevara, 1998; Hall & Carter, 2006; Malcolm, 2000; Shearer, 2010; Simmons, 2005; Zheng, 2009), can be unnecessarily restrictive and actually limit students from getting the information they need, directly decreasing their access to information and therefore their overall academic freedom.
The 2011 story “Don’t filter me” found that most school filters were so restrictive that students were unable to perform in-depth research on a variety of subjects (such as weaponry) based on filter settings, and in certain cases students were also blocked from finding information on LGBTQ websites, even if the material contained on those sites was not sexually explicit (and therefore justifiably “blockable” under CIPA),
Guevara (1998) reported that teachers complained about inability to access information needed for specific classes (such as the teen pregnancy class) because of filters blocking sites with words like “breast cancer” and “breast feeding,”
Malcolm (2000) found that sometimes filters appeared to be (perhaps unintentionally) racially biased, in one extreme example blocking student access to the NAACP website, but allowing the student to access the website of the KKK,
Shearer (2010) stated that the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) reported that because of the harshness of some filters, even innocent searches were being limited (citing specifically searches on the words ‘magna cum laude’ and ‘pussy willows’ as causing blocks for students),
Simmons (2005) discovered that teachers in his survey felt the filters were less about protecting students from harm and more about banning Internet access broadly for a number of reasons, which “hampered their duties, created an inconvenience, reduced student autonomy, [and] lowered morale” (p. 7), and
Zheng (2009) discovered that because CIPA did not affect students’ Internet usage at home, high school students were less likely to access the Internet at schools where filtering restrictions were in place, circumnavigating the purpose of CIPA altogether.
Despite the best efforts of schools to limit access to CIPA-violating information through the use of filters, Brown (2006), Guevara (1998), and Zheng (2009) believe that if they are crafty enough, students can usually find a way to bypass filters at school anyway. However, as numerous authors already mentioned have discussed, it is the filtering itself that is at issue, particularly when filters block useful or harmless information from students because of keywords that are delimited by filtering systems. Indeed, as Shearer (2010) shares from the 2009 NCAC report, Internet Filters in Schools and Libraries, “Internet filters create a … Digital Divide between the haves and have-nots, since many students do not have Internet access at home and may only access online information through the school … Since equitable access is not maintained in this situation, a student’s right to information is violated” (p. 262).
The notion of creating a “Digital Divide” is one of the biggest reasons why librarians across the country and the American Library Association were concerned about what CIPA would do in terms of allowing children access to information when it was first passed. The ALA argued particularly that requiring public libraries to install filters on behalf of CIPA, and tying the installation of such filters to federal funding for technology in public libraries, was unconstitutional. Although this was originally upheld by various courts, the Supreme Court eventually overturned these rulings, deciding that CIPA requirements did not violate the First Amendment rights of public libraries (United States v. ALA, 2003). More on litigation against CIPA by the APA can be found here.
The issue of filters becomes particularly problematic for those in student media attempting to do research on school grounds to gather necessary information to report the news freely and fairly. As Malcolm (2000) discussed, when the use of filters was first announced at his Iowa school, he asked that filters not be applied to the journalism computers at the school based on the need of student media to access a wide variety of information for research purposes. Despite being assured by school officials that journalism computers would not be filtered, both he and students were surprised to find that filters were applied to all school computers when they returned in the fall. Students at the school decided to do a story about the application of the filters to the computers at the school, and quickly (and ironically) discovered they were unable to perform research for the story because of sites blocked by the filters, including sites such as the Student Press Law Center website. After students started numerous campaigns and petitions against filtering at the school (particularly taking issue with how restrictive the filters were for those attempting to do research in a journalism setting), the district eased restrictions and lifted filters on 10 of the 29 categories it had originally filtered. The district also made provisions for getting access to blocked sites more feasible, including mandating a 48-hour response time by those running the filter for such requests. Although Malcolm’s (2000) story had a positive outcome, this story is not typical, as teachers in Simmons’ (2005) survey recounted. Indeed, without specific policies regarding Internet filters for schools to follow, and the insertion of “censorship” by a third-party vendor for many schools (in the instance where filters are applied and managed by a non-school company, as discussed in Hall et al., 2006), Internet filtering plays a massive role in the limiting of academic freedom, both for student media, and for students in general.
In concluding the section on Internet filtering, it is put forth here that filters do more to limit access to all information than to protect students from material such as pornography and sexually graphic or harmful content. These limits directly impinge on the academic freedom of all students, but most particularly (as alluded to in the story by Malcolm, 2000) those in student media. Those working in student media need increased access to information in order to perform their jobs appropriately and until the courts rule otherwise, Internet filters are oftentimes an unfair and unjustified abuse of power by school officials in the name of “protection.”
-. (2011). Don’t filter me. Curriculum Review, 51, 4-5.
Brown, T. M. (2006). Culture, gender, and subjectivities: Computer and internet restrictions in a high school library. Journal of Access Services, 4, 1-26. doi: 10.1300/J204v04n0301.
Guevara, L. (1998). Plain or filtered: Considering a filter program? Educom Review, 33, 4.
Hall, R., & Carter, E. (2006). Examining the constitutionality of internet filtering in public schools: A U.S. perspective. Education and the Law, 18, 227-245.
Malcolm, D. B. (2000). Fighting internet filters unites students against censorship. The Education Digest, 66, 57-62.
Shearer, K. M. (2010). Blogging and internet filters in schools. Community and Junior College Libraries, 16, 259-263. doi: 10.1080/02763915.2010.526913.
Simmons, D. G. (2005). Internet filtering: The effects in a middle and high school setting. Meridian, 8, 1-12.
United States et al., v. American Library Association, Inc., et al., 539 U.S. 194 (2003).
Zheng, Y. (2009). Differences in high school and college students’ basic knowledge and perceived education of internet safety: Do high school students really benefit from the Children’s Internet Protection Act? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30, 209-217.