In a clash of small-town values and the information age, the internet came out the winner when a Wisconsin superintendent apologized for stopping a high school student from using a school computer to look up witchcraft.
“We learned the hard way, I guess,” said Edward Sheridan, superintendent of the Winter School District. “What we learned from this is there cannot be a restriction on internet use during after-school hours, other than federal law, which is pornography, I guess.”
He added, “I regret the wrong decision was made.”
The student, 16-year-old Burklin Nielsen, said she became interested in other religions after taking a religion and philosophy class one summer at Lawrence University in Appleton.
But last spring, she was told by the supervisor of an after-school computer lab open to the public that she could look up only Christian-based religions, she said. School officials denied that claim.
Ms. Neilsen said she was ordered three times to log off internet sites that featured an “earth religion,” witchcraft and magic, and book lists on goddesses that the supervisor determined were inappropriate.
The sites involved the goddess-based Wiccan religion, which has a homepage with a pentagram, a five-pointed star used as a magic or occult symbol, said Lucy Dalglish, the lawyer for the girl’s family.
The student and her family filed a complaint with the state Department of Public Instruction, claiming, among other things, that the girl’s right to practice freedom of religion had been violated.
That complaint led Sheridan to write a letter to Dalglish dated March 23 informing her the school would not limit use of the internet upon “the basis of constitutionally protected religious content.”
“I recognize that the school district should have allowed her the right to access such information and I regret having taken steps to prevent her from doing so,” the letter stated.
Sheridan said that Ms. Nielsen was denied access to the disputed internet site because “I felt it was a negative thing to look up. I don’t see witchcraft as a religion.”
He admitted his decision was a judgment on what was proper.
Dalglish said the dispute was over and there was no need to file a lawsuit. The district also agreed to remove a filter from the computer, she said.
“It’s a 100-percent victory,” Dalglish said. “The family never wanted any money. They just wanted the district to do the right thing, so they are very pleased. They are not pleased that it took so long.”
Sheridan said use of the internet during school hours will remain limited to “class-related purposes only.”
Winter School District