RI ACLU Report Finds Prevalent Internet Censorship in Public Schools

Posted: Mar, 11, 2013

The websites of PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet, a website on global warming, and a popular book reading recommendation site are among the many online sites that students and teachers have been unable to access at public schools in Rhode Island due to the use of so-called Internet filtering software.

That is one of the findings of a report issued today by the ACLU of Rhode Island, which documents how use of this flawed software has hindered teachers from making use of the Internet to educate students and has hampered students from accessing relevant information in the classroom. The report offers a number of recommendations to ameliorate the harm caused by these programs, including the passage of state legislation to promote transparency in the use of the filters.

Internet filtering programs block certain categories of websites – or even websites that simply mention specific words – when students use school computers to access the Internet. Although primarily designed to prevent access to “pornography,” the deeply flawed software, and 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,” 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.”

Through an open records request, the ACLU examined filtering software policies and practices in Rhode Island’s school districts and found:

The report also criticized the lack of meaningful policies by school districts to govern this intrusive censorship regime:

The ACLU report recommends a number of actions to address the consequent serious impact on students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights and on their right to access information in schools. Among the report’s recommendations:

The report’s author, ACLU of RI Policy Associate Hillary Davis, said today: “The excessive use of Internet filters by schools has seriously infringed on the First Amendment rights of students and teachers on a daily basis. 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.”

Rep. Art Handy has introduced legislation, H-5652, that would require school districts to adopt clear policies governing their use of filtering software, as well as procedures to allow teachers to quickly have sites unblocked.