Alabama lawmaker introduces school Internet filtering bill

Tuesday, February 29, 2000

Public school officials would be required to outfit school computers in the state with filtering software that would block access to objectionable material, according to a measure recently introduced in the Alabama House of Representatives.

House Bill 543, introduced on Feb. 22, mandates that each local board of education adopt an Internet-use policy that includes “screening software” or an “Internet service provider” that would “restrict access” to certain types of material.

The restricted material would include obscenity, child pornography and material that is harmful to minors.

The measure also would require the blocking of “material that is conducive to the creation of a hostile school environment, pervasively vulgar, excessively violent, harassing, educationally unsuitable, or otherwise objectionable in the school environment, as defined by local school board policy, with respect to minors, based upon their specific age group and as construed by authoritative interpretive guidelines.”

According to the bill’s text, the measure would “balance the goal of Internet access with the duty to protect minor students from contact with sexual predators” and “inappropriate” material.

However, at least one free-speech expert said the measure would infringe on the quality of Internet access for high school students.

Jonathan Wallace, a founding member of the group the Censorware Project, which opposes the use of filtering software in public institutions, questions the phrase “otherwise objectionable” in the bill. The language is both overly broad and vague, he says.

“This could easily sweep in a wide variety of perfectly legitimate sites of social and educational value,” he said. “Blocking software in high schools has a tendency to prevent students from being able to do research on AIDS, teen-age drug use, gun violence and other topics.”

Even though the bill directs school officials to interpret what material is objectionable based upon a “specific age group,” Wallace expresses concern. “In practice, administrators with the law breathing down their neck always take a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

The sponsor of the measure, state Rep. Bob McKee, could not be reached for comment.

The measure has been referred to the House Education Committee, which has not set a hearing date.