PROVIDENCE – Internet censorship is prevalent in Rhode Island public schools and damaging to the educational environment, according to a report from the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The websites of PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet and a website on global warming are among the many websites that so-called Internet filtering software has blocked from students and teachers at public schools.
Internet filtering programs are designed to block certain categories of websites or websites that mention specific words. Although their primary target is to prevent access to pornography, the ACLU report called the software “deeply flawed” and said that school districts’ “over-extensive embrace of it has a significant impact on classroom teaching.”
The ACLU report – “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education” – said that allowing school administrators “virtually unbridled discretion to determine how this technological censor will be used gives them a power over classroom teaching that would never be tolerated for offline lessons.”
“The excessive use of Internet filters by schools has seriously infringed on the First Amendment rights of students and teachers on a daily basis,” ACLU of R.I. Policy Associate and report author Hillary Davis said in a statement. “Internet filtering has censored, rather than expanded, education and placed serious barriers between students and a robust understanding of the world around them. In order to best serve our students, use of filtering software must be strictly limited, with teachers able to lift the filter whenever necessary.”
Through an open records request the ACLU examined the filtering software policies used in Rhode Island schools. The report found that many teachers experienced block sites, either due to flaws in the filtering software or what the ACLU called “over-reaching implementation of filters.” Blocked site examples include: the Smithsonian website, Goodreads.com (a book recommendation site) and a YouTube video on Social Security, among many others.
The report went on to say that nearly half of the state’s school districts block students from accessing websites that the software manufacturer describes as promoting “partisan historical opinion” or include information about undefined “anti-government groups.”
The report also said that students experienced blocked sites under such “obviously appropriate categories” as books and literature, social opinion, religion and lifestyle and culture, which blocks students’ access to pro-gay websites.
The ACLU report mentioned examples of the “safe search” keyword blocking feature blocking students from completing assignments that required looking up information about a synthetic polymer known as “polyvinyl alcohol” simply because the search included the word “alcohol.”
The report also complained about a lack of transparency to students and faculty regarding what the “acceptable use” of school computers actually is.
The ACLU report included a number of recommendations to “address the consequent serious impact on students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights and on their right to access information in schools.”
Recommendations included: filtering only those categories required by federal law or spyware and viruses to protect the school computer system; have written procedures in place to quickly respond to teachers’ requests to unblock sites; offer students and teachers information about which sites are blocked and official responses to requests to unblock sites.
The ACLU also recommended that “rather than focusing on censorship, schools should spend more time educating students on Internet safety.”
To view the full report visit: www.riaclu.org.