In The 21st Century
practice of banning and burning books is alive and well in America's
education system today, albeit with a 21st century twist. In an
effort to shield innocent minds from online "smut," the
Children's Internet Protection Act -- or CIPA -- has mandated that
all public schools and libraries using federal funds for Internet
use or connections must install a filtering system by this July
or risk losing the aid altogether. Not only does this directly impinge
upon the free expression rights of youth and adults, it subverts
the education process as a whole.
Last fall, the
Free Expression Policy Project examined more than 70 studies on
the effectiveness of filters and concluded that the systems are
inherently flawed. Multiple programs -- including Net Nanny, SurfWatch,
CYBERsitter, and BESS -- blocked House Majority Leader Richard "Dick"
Armey's official Web site upon detecting the word "dick."
I-Gear blocked a United Nations report on "HIV/AIDS: The Global
Epidemic," while Smartfilter blocked Marijuana: Facts for Teens,
a brochure published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
of cases, filters censored artistic sites, public health information,
and communications dealing with sexuality education, largely because
the technology relied on key phrases like "over 18," "sex,"
"breast," and "pussy" (hence, X-Stop's blocking
of "pussy willow" searches). Moreover, the political agendas
of some manufacturers were reflected through their censoring of
such topics as human rights, criticism of filtering systems, and
homosexuality. Nancy Willard at the University of Oregon's Center
for Advanced Technology in Education also discovered an unsettling
relationship between some prominent filtering companies and conservative
religious groups. Several filtering systems with a major presence
in public schools have a history of functioning as religious Internet
Service Providers and/or espousing conservative philosophies. This
delegation of educational decisions to companies with religious
agendas poses a great danger to the constitutionally mandated separation
of church and state.
To make matters
worse, most filtering systems refuse to publicize the list of sites
they block, which in effect prevents school districts from the ability
to detect these hidden biases. Congress has essentially forced public
schools to turn over major decision-making power to private companies
with profit and/or ideological motives.
In the year
and a half since CIPA was enacted, our organization has received
letters from disgruntled teachers across America. A California high
school teacher who called filters a "frightening" form
of "modern day censorship" noted "I have been unable
to ask questions about filtering policies without being made to
feel that I must be looking up porn sites on my lunch break."
Students have also written to express their frustration. Among their
research topics rendered virtually impossible by many filters are
school violence, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, AIDS, mental
illnesses, and -- in one case -- the asexual reproduction of mushrooms.
For privileged students, these filters are more an annoyance than
anything else: They simply wait until they get home to their personal
computers to conduct their research. But that's not an option for
everyone. While 86.3 percent of households earning $75,000 and above
annually had Internet access in the United States in 2000 (according
to a Department of Commerce study), only 12.7 percent of households
earning less than $15,000 did. This so-called "digital divide"
puts black and Latino students at a distinct disadvantage, as they
are only half as likely to have Internet access at home as whites.
Across the nation,
school districts, libraries, city councils, and free speech organizations
have rallied together to fight CIPA. On March 25, the federal court
in Philadelphia will hear the American Library Association and the
American Civil Liberties Union's challenge to the law's library
provisions. At least one school district in Eugene, Oregon, has
refused to install filters altogether, relying instead on stringent
student monitoring and a well-enforced acceptable use policy. Indeed,
there are countless better ways to keep students from sites that
are inappropriate in school, including training in media literacy,
instilling critical thinking skills, and quality sex education.
Such methods will prove far more effective in preparing youngsters
for adult life in a democratic society than attempting to censor
society through a filter.
has widely been touted as a revolution in democratic communication,
but that doesn't quite apply to students and adults who rely on
public schools and libraries for access. Perhaps what's really needed
is a more contemporary version of A. J. Liebling's famous quote:
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."
With filtering systems, "Freedom of the Internet is guaranteed
only to those who own a computer."
is executive director of the Free Expression Policy Project in New
new book: Not In Front Of The Children: "Indecency," Censorship,
and the Innocence of Youth