In a decision with broad implications for schools nationwide, a New Hampshire judge has ruled that the Exeter school district must make public copies of its internet history logs so a father can check whether officials are doing enough to keep pupils away from the web’s seedy side.

James Knight, a father of four whose children attended district schools until recently, filed a lawsuit asking a judge to force the district to hand over its internet logs after educators decided not to use filtering programs on computers children use.

The programs, which have been criticized for their accuracy, block access to objectionable internet sites. The district decided to use supervision and spot checks by teachers instead.

But Knight, 44, questioned whether that was enough and wanted to examine the internet logs to see whether children were accessing pornographic or other objectionable sites despite the supervision.

School officials denied the request, saying distributing the information would violate the federal Electronic Communications Act of 1986 and would fall outside the state’s Right-to-Know law.

Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson disagreed. In a ruling released Nov. 2, Abramson said a district’s internet history logs are, indeed, public records.

She also ruled that the federal wiretap statute does not apply because the contents of the logs had not been wrongfully intercepted, which is a precondition to the application of those laws, at least in New Hampshire.

“The Court finds that, in this instance, it was unreasonable for the respondents to conclude that the records the petitioner requested were exempt from the Right-to-Know law, as they knew or should have known that the information was not exempt…,” Abramson wrote in her ruling.

Material that could divulge personal details about pupils is not public information and needs to be protected, district officials had argued. For example, under the state’s Right-to-Know law, a person cannot go to a public library and request a list of everyone who has borrowed specific books.

But Knight’s lawyer, Alec McEachern, successfully argued that pupils’ privacy wasn’t an issue in this case because his client wasn’t interested in learning who used the internet, only where they went. Any identifying information can be deleted from the log files before they are made public, McEachern said, so parents can’t tell which students visited which sites.

Judge Abramson agreed. But, to protect students’ privacy, the school district must write a computer program that removes user names and passwords from the log files before making the list of web sites that students visited available to Knight.

The cost of such a process must be paid by Knight or anyone else who requests the records, Abramson said.

Knight praised the decision, saying everybody wins—the children, their parents, and the district.

“I hope it will promote accountability now that parents will have access to this information,” Knight said. “Now, there will be more people making sure that the information [students] do have access to is acceptable . . .”

McEachern said he believes Knight’s lawsuit is the first attempt by a parent to get access to a school’s internet logs, though it isn’t the first time a state’s freedom-of-information laws have been tested on the issue.

Two years ago, a group concerned with internet freedoms won access to internet logs at schools in Utah. The group, the Censorware Project, opposed the use of filtering software and wanted to see if such programs were blocking pupils from accessing legitimate sites.

Jon Meyer, a lawyer in Manchester, N.H., who has experience in education law and civil rights cases, predicted that if Judge Abramson’s ruling is not overturned, it could encourage anxious parents in other states to use local right-to-know laws to gain access to school internet use logs to check on students’ web activity.

Arthur Hanson, superintendent of the Exeter school district, did not immediately return calls seeking comment. The district’s lawyer, Stephen Hermans, declined to discuss the case.

Links:

Exeter Regional Cooperative School District
http://www.ercsd.k12.nh.us