Rhode Island public school districts unnecessarily censor what is available to students on school computers, claims the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Examples of filtered websites that the group said were inaccessible were a website on global warming, a book reading recommendation site and PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day.
The ACLU says flawed filtering software has hindered teachers from making use of the Internet to educate students and has hampered students from accessing relevant information in the classroom. .
Internet filtering programs block certain categories of websites or websites that contain specific words.
The ACLU report, “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education,” notes 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.”
What did the ACLU's report find?
- Blocked sites included the Smithsonian website, the Goodreads.com book recommendation site, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet, a website on global warming, a YouTube video on Social Security, and the websites of PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day.
- More than half the school districts block students from accessing websites that, by the software manufacturer’s definition, “promote partisan historical opinion” or that include any information about undefined “anti-government groups.”
- A few school districts block, or warn students about accessing, websites in such obviously-appropriate categories as “books and literature,” “social opinion,” and “religion.”
- One of the filtering categories that a few school districts use – “Lifestyle & Culture” blocks students’ access to pro-gay rights websites, says the ACLU
- “safe search” keyword blocked 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.”
What does the ACLU Recommend?
- School districts should filter only those categories required by federal law (in general, visual depictions of sexual conduct that fit under the definition of “obscene for minors”), and those required to protect the school computer system (e.g., blocking spyware and viruses, limiting excessive bandwidth, etc.)
- School districts should have in place written procedures to quickly respond to teacher requests to unblock sites, with a presumption that any such request should be granted.
- Information about the categories that are being blocked by school officials, and documentation of their responses to any requests for blocking and unblocking sites, should be readily accessible to teachers, students and the public.
- Rather than focusing on censorship, schools should spend more time educating students on Internet safet, says the ACLU.
The ACLU report is available on the ACLU’s website, www.riaclu.org.