With a victory in the public libraries behind them, anti-censorship activists joined with parents, teachers, and students Sept. 18 in a move to beat back the imposition of federally mandated web filters in schools.

The nationwide “speak-out” served as a rallying point for anti-censorship organizations—including, the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and National Coalition Against Censorship—to sound off against the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The law that requires all schools receiving eRate funds to use “technology protection measures” to keep kids from accessing inappropriate material online.

Although the event, which took place simultaneously in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, did not include the announcement of any formal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of CIPA in schools, it did encourage a national student letter-writing campaign, which organizers hope will increase public scrutiny of the act and pressure lawmakers to adopt new policies for safe, effective internet use in schools.

CIPA detractors claim that school-imposed web filters inadvertently block access to educational sites, making it virtually impossible for teachers to use professional discretion when deciding what content to allow in the classroom.

One speak-out participant, Marjorie Heins, who is director of the Free Expression Policy Project and author of Not in Front of the Children: ‘Indecency,’ Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, called the law “outrageous,” saying it’s inconceivable that the federal government should ask teachers to give up their professional discretion in favor of corporate filtering products designed by companies that are far removed from students and their individual instructional needs.

Several educators agreed with Heins. These needs, they said, go unfulfilled because web filters often operate by singling out certain words—including “rape,” “terrorism,” and “anarchy”—which might or might not be used in an inappropriate fashion.

For instance, in one New York City school, students were blocked from accessing information related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because the filtering system there inadvertently identified the word “terrorism” as dangerous and offensive to students, said John Elfrank, a social studies teacher with the city’s school system.

David Burt, public relations manger for N2H2 Inc., which makes one of the most widely used filtering products in schools, said a lot more goes into choosing blocked sites than simply red-flagging certain words for detection. Burt said N2H2’s filter does not block solely on the recognition of a potentially harmful word, but rather looks for such indicators as adult warnings, pornographic content, and specific tags in web addresses commonly associated with lewd or inappropriate content. Like most other filtering companies, N2H2 also uses human reviewers to check red-flagged sites to make sure they are not blocked inadvertently.

But critics of filtering software argue there is no way a team of employees can keep up with the thousands of new sites on the internet each day, and mistakes are inevitable.

Elfrank, who spoke during the event, told eSchool News that as a social studies teacher his duty is to instill democratic values in his students. It’s hard to do that, he said, when kids are not allowed to think for themselves.

“It’s demoralizing to students,” he said of filtering. “Especially when 99.9 percent of the time they are trying to access legitimate content. It can be really frustrating.”

According to Elfrank, schools in New York City have centralized lists where teachers can lobby to have certain words removed from the filtering cipher. But, he said, busy teachers have little time to take on the bureaucratic red tape required to make these changes. Also, it’s difficult to know what words are being blocked, because most filtering manufacturers have refused to release such lists. They say doing so would hurt their competitive advantage.

“Teachers should be able to control the content that comes into their classroom,” Elfrank said. “They should have the right to exercise professional discretion.”

“We couldn’t even get the New York Times [web site] up,” said Jan Shafkosky, a former New York City school teacher, who retired this year after 30 years of service. Another example of inadvertent filtering reportedly came when students were denied access to the government’s Thomas.gov site while attempting to access information on the Date Rape Act of 2001. “There was some very political blocking,” she said. “And students could not do research.”

Shafkosky said schools that operate off the New York Department of Education’s web server are at a distinct disadvantage compared with city schools operating off of local college or other public web servers, because only those schools on the department’s server are subject to web filtering.

“Don’t be under the delusion that there is equal education in New York City,” she said, adding that it’s difficult to promote equality in education when some students are granted greater levels of access and personal responsibility than others.

“Look, I don’t believe children should be able to access [pornography],” she said. “But I think people have to realize that we need to teach our own kids how to” think critically and make decisions.

Shafkosky said school filters also often blocked sites providing information on such topics as gun control, diabetes, abortion, and smoking.

In fact, the Free Expression Policy Project has compiled a list of hundreds of blocked sites as reported by educators and has included it in “Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report,” which is available on the organization’s web site.

Another organization, Peacefire.org, established in 1996 to protect the free-speech rights of children under 18 on the internet, highlights a new inadvertently blocked site every week. One example: the 19th-century classic Jane Eyre, which Peacefire claims is blocked by Symantec Corp.’s I-Gear filter when accessed through the archives at Carnegie Mellon University.

Shafkosky said she became so irate with the limitations imposed by school web filters that she sometimes would bring her own laptop into school and plug it directly into a classroom phone line, using dial-up internet access to evade the blocks. “You couldn’t do any work,” she said.

Despite the frustrations of some, many educators contend filters are necessary for keeping children safe online while at school.

“I definitely think filtering is necessary,” said Carlos de Sousa, network manager for the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill, Mass.

Sousa draws his convictions from the memory of an incident that occurred six years earlier, while he was working at a different Massachusetts school.

According to Sousa, a third-grader had accessed pornography over the internet at home, then printed a few lewd pictures and brought them into school. When the child showed a few of his peers the printed photos, they insisted that the boy use a school computer to show them where the pornography could be found. He did so.

“I deal with kids every day, and I know that the temptation is great to seek out that kind of stuff,” Sousa said. “We’re not talking lace and lingerie, either, but real, hard-core pornography.”

Even more disturbing than when students seek out inappropriate content in school is when they stumble upon it by mistake, Sousa said. He believes filters are needed to keep students from accidentally stumbling upon inappropriate sites with web addresses that closely resemble those of popular educational and children’s web sites.

Other proponents of CIPA, which was introduced in 1999 and co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., argue that 75 percent of schools already used some type of filtering technology before the bill became law.

Still, critics argue that CIPA, which requires compliance for all schools seeking eRate funds, imposes excessive limitations that were not in place when schools were drawing up localized filtering policies independent of government mandates.

According to Chris Hunter, a filtering expert who testified during the challenge of CIPA in America’s public libraries, the requirement is so stringent that it does not even allow teachers to disable the filters when accessing the internet to do research or construct lesson plans.

Any time an educator wants to have a site unblocked, he or she first must ask permission from the administration, Hunter said. This stipulation was not widespread when schools were devising their own independent policies.

CIPA’s opponents are critical of the use of web filters in schools as a means to protect children from the internet, but many say they are not adverse to employing other methods of online protection, including better teacher training, student preparation, disciplinary action, and strategic computer lab setups that would allow teachers to monitor each student’s screen.

Although organizers of the Sept. 18 speak-out said they don’t expect the event to cause an automatic change in the status of the law, many said they hope the event will serve to promote a greater awareness and understanding of the debate at hand.

“I am hopeful that if we keep the pressure on, the fear level will be greatly reduced,” Elfrank said. “There will be fewer people in the education community [who] will be so reactionary.”

“What this press conference does indicate is that, now that there has been success on the library front, the spotlight is turning to schools. The use of these [filtering] products in public schools will not survive scrutiny,” said Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Project at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education.

Links:

Free Expression Policy Project’s “Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report”
http://www.fepproject.org/issues/filteringreports.html#BESS

New York City Department of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu

Peacefire.org
http://www.peacefire.org

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

Symantec Corp.
http://www.symantec.com