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 introduce 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.

Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project, called the law “outrageous,” saying it’s inconceivable the federal government should ask teachers to give up their professional discretion in favor of filtering products designed by companies that are far removed from students and their 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 manager 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. The Free Expression Policy Project has compiled a list of hundreds of inappropriately blocked sites as reported by educators and has included this list 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.

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

Links:

“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