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ACLU Applauds New Law Addressing Internet Filtering in Schools

Posted: July 14, 2016|Category: Students' Rights

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today commended the General Assembly for passing, and Governor Gina Raimondo for signing, legislation establishing transparent standards for the use of Internet filters in Rhode Island’s schools.

Under the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), schools and libraries receiving federal funding must use a “technology protection measure” that blocks visual depictions of narrowly-defined “obscene material” and sexual images considered  “harmful to minors.” Across Rhode Island, however, schools and school districts have used the filters to restrict access to considerably more information than federal law requires or intends.

In 2013, the ACLU issued a report, “Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education,” detailing the difficulties students and teachers have experienced since Internet filters were introduced. Among the varied sites teachers found blocked were the Smithsonian website, 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. Further, “safe search” features sometimes prevented students from even investigating topics relevant to their studies, such as a search for “polyvinyl alcohol” which was blocked because it contained the word “alcohol.”

The legislation, H 7583 A and S 2172 A, sponsored by Rep. Art Handy and Sen. Adam Satchell, requires school districts and the state Department of Education to implement a clear written policy that specifies the categories of websites that are blocked and the basis for blocking them, as well as a procedure for teachers to request sites be unblocked in a timely manner. The bill also requires an annual review of the policy in order to address problems of over-blocking. In 2012, a federal judge ruled that a Missouri school district had violated the First Amendment rights of students by using an Internet filter that blocked many websites expressing positive LGBT views.

ACLU of RI policy associate Hillary Davis said today: “The Internet offers a world of educational opportunities that Rhode Island’s students have been denied because of overzealous filtering software. This new law will go a long way toward ensuring teachers can bring their full range of resources to the classroom, and that students can complete their studies without interruption or frustration. We thank the General Assembly and Governor Raimondo for supporting this important legislation, and promoting the academic freedom of Rhode Island’s students.”

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