“Political,” “hobbies,” “dictionary” and “news” are just four of the ‘filtered’ categories blocked by RI school districts’ Internet filtering systems. This was one of the findings of a report on the status of Internet filtering in RI public schools released today by the ACLU. A follow-up to a 2013 analysis on the same issue, today’s report found that RI schools’ filtering systems continue to over-censor school Internet networks, hampering academic freedom and access to relevant educational information. Importantly, the report also found that only two school districts – Cumberland and Exeter-West Greenwich – have adopted formal policies governing their use of Internet filters that complies with a 2016 law designed to promote academic freedom in the classroom.
Internet filtering programs block certain categories of websites – or even websites that mention specific words – when students use school computers to access the Internet. Today’s report largely mirrored the findings in a report the ACLU of RI released in 2013, which found that filtering systems in use in RI public schools restrict access to considerably more information than federal law requires or intends. Notably, most schools provide no public information about which sites will be blocked, nor formal, transparent processes to request that a site be unblocked. Ultimately, the report’s findings resulted in the passage of a state law requiring school districts to have formal policies in place that govern their use of Internet filtering systems, including listing the categories of sites they block and methods for teachers to unblock sites that interfere with their teaching. Earlier this year, the RI Department of education shared a model policy – drafted with assistance from the ACLU – to help facilitate districts’ compliance with this law.
Today’s report found that despite this state law, not much has changed since 2013, as school districts continue to vastly over-censor information, and most have failed to adopt filtering policies as mandated by law. Among the report’s findings:
• Twenty-eight districts did not have a policy regarding Internet filtering at all, and only two complied fully with the 2016 statute.
• Blocked categories include such academically relevant topics as sex education, drugs, and terrorism.
• As mentioned above, a few districts even go so far as to block sites devoted to topics such as “hobbies,” “humor,” “dictionary,” “news,” and “political.”
Since the ACLU gathered this information, it has learned that a few other districts are in the process of implementing new policies to comport with the law, including Barrington, Block Island, and Burrillville. This month, the state Commissioner of Education reminded school districts of their obligation to adopt a policy compliant with the 2016 law, and the ACLU has been advised that RIDE plans on following up on that reminder if necessary.
Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director, said today: “By continuing to unnecessarily limit access to important educational information, Rhode Island’s schools are short-changing our students and unduly interfering with the ability of teachers to discuss important issues in the classroom. We are hopeful that the Commissioner’s reminder will lead to quick compliance with the law.”