Excess web filtering in schools hurts education

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

There’s nothing sexy about the First Amendment Center’s website. Our goal is to publish a daily report that can be used in any classroom in America. We strive to be nonpartisan, apolitical and as tasteful as possible. We know that if parents and educators know that we’re a safe and trusted destination, their children and students are more likely to turn to us for research and term papers on the First Amendment.

That’s why it’s always a surprise to us when we hear that some schools can’t access our site because of Internet filters. We can make an educated guess as to why that might be happening. Recaps of court cases do mention pornography, and even the most dry recitation of obscenity laws will invariably include references to breasts and buttocks. Our site includes names of hate groups, typically in the context of litigating their right to assemble. Too often filters are blunt instruments, cutting off access to ideas just because a word or two are regarded as so loaded that they trigger automated censorship.

That’s why we’re heartened by the American Association of School Librarians’ efforts to raise awareness about overly restrictive filters of educational sites and social networks in schools and school libraries. The AASL declared Sept. 28 as “Banned Websites Awareness Day” in conjunction with the annual Banned Books Week. It’s interesting that the banned-websites day is just a subset of the broader banned-books event. In fact, a lot more information doesn’t get into the hands of students because of overly aggressive filters than because of would-be book banners.

Though we associate the First Amendment with free speech, access to information is also a First Amendment right.  Overly broad limits on what students can access can have significant consequences for the quality of education, particularly in America’s high schools.

Much of this is common sense. If legitimate educational sites are being blocked, then the filters should be reviewed and access to those sites added manually. By ensuring access to sites of integrity, school libraries are in fact expanding their walls, making available to students much more information than any previous generation ever had. That’s a very good thing.

But a recent Knight study suggests some other benefits to limiting filtering in America’s schools. The recent Future of the First Amendment survey conducted by the Knight Foundation suggests that students who are active in social media are also more likely to understand and appreciate First Amendment rights, including the philosophical underpinnings. Exercising free speech and listening to the views of others enhances our democracy.

No one is suggesting that students should have access to pornography in America’s schools, but neither should we be so nervous about what young people read and see that we short-circuit their access to the marketplace of ideas. A high school senior has at most months before he or she is expected to enter the world as a full-fledged citizen, with the power to vote and influence public policy. We are not preparing students for those significant responsibilities if we shield them from uncomfortable ideas, or worse, deprive them of educational opportunities because of highly restrictive settings on a web filter.

Students today grow up faster and are exposed to much more media (good and bad) than any generation before. We need to give them the tools they need to navigate the waves of content and information headed their way.

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