If school administrators and policy makers want to preview the next controversy that will send them scurrying to their attorney, they need look no further than the local public library. There are almost an equal number of public libraries that have been sued for allowing students too much online access and not enough.
The unfortunate aspect of this burgeoning brouhaha is that regardless of which side of the controversy you choose, you are probably going to get sued. Recent litigation arising out of the use of library computers to access information from the internet has brought the ideologues, right-thinkers, and advocates for absolutes out of the closet and into the courtroom.
Last fall, a Loudon County, Va., library was sued for installing filtering software on all its computers. The library lost. The court ruled that restricting adults from wandering to any web site they wanted was unconstitutional.
More recently, libraries in Alameda County, Calif., were sued for not blocking pornography and other material from the dark side of the net. In the latter case, a minor downloaded XXX-rated pictures from several sites, printed them, and shared them with his friends. His mother’s attorney sued the library (first for maintaining a public nuisance and, after that failed, for failing to protect the boy’s constitutional right to be “free from pain”). Both suits were dismissed.
While it is tempting to explore the nuances of these cases, the American Civil Liberties Union and its conservative counterparts (such as the Pacific Justice Institute, which backed the anti-porn lawsuit in California) have staked out that ground. One side favors unrestricted access to the internet by everyone, while the other would impose universal filtering to block material they find objectionable.
Neither side is right. Ever since the Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines that students did not shed their First Amendment rights at the school door, some advocates have mistakenly seen those rights as unlimited. They are not. In virtually every aspect of constitutional law, the rights of minors are significantly narrower than the rights of voting-age adults.
The legal solution is simple. Any internet use policy that allows adults open access to the web while restricting the access of minors through filtering or other means will not run afoul of the Constitution. It would probably also be lawful to restrict internet use to adults only.
What would be so horrible about that? Why the almost frantic need of educators and others to get students online? The internet isn’t a magic bullet that will revive the faltering quality of public education. While the web contains a wealth of information, it can be like sending students to the Library of Congress to do a 1,500-word paper on black holes or the economy of Zimbabwe. For the exceptional student or esoteric topic, the internet is a fine tool–but one that has as many dangers as an unsupervised chemistry lab. It might be worthwhile to spend some time evaluating exactly why you feel your students need to be online and whether the information they need can be more safely attainable elsewhere.
I am not suggesting that you restrict students to books. But there are other alternatives if you’re concerned about online safety. CD-ROMs and other software programs can be previewed for use in the classroom. Every issue of the National Geographic, for example, is on CD-ROM for less than $150.
If you decide that you want your students to have as much unfettered access as possible, remember that there’s nothing unconstitutional about requiring adult supervision of internet research. Maybe you won’t be able to brag that all your classrooms are 100% internet accessible, but your SAT scores won’t suffer–and you might not get sued.