Internet’s power, variety fuels new school debates

Sunday, April 18, 1999

The Internet revolution gives public school students and teachers access to all kinds of information — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This means that school officials are busy scrambling to keep up with the challenges of this new world — and to somehow control traffic on the information highway.

But should schools limit Internet access? And, if so, how far should they go? Those questions have sparked debate about First Amendment rights and the Internet across the nation — most recently in Utah, Wisconsin and California.

Last month Utah schools came under fire for using software that is supposed to filter out “objectionable material” such as Web sites about sex or drugs. But critics charge that the filter doesn't stop there. According to the Censorware Project, an Internet watchdog group, Utah students can't access the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, Shakespeare's plays and many other useful and educational sites.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a high school student got into trouble for looking up information about Wicca, a contemporary religion based on witchcraft. This wasn't even during the school day — the student was using the school's computer lab during non-school hours when the lab was open to the public.

And over in a southern California district, school officials ordered a local minister to stop sending daily e-mails containing devotional messages to adult staff members who had requested them.

All three incidents have one thing in common: Schools are pushing heavy-handed answers to the new questions raised by Internet access.

It's easy to understand why Utah schools want to keep pornographic material off the computer screens of students. That's a laudable aim. But software that filters out the proverbial baby with the bathwater is no solution.

A better approach is to teach students responsible use of their school computer and the Internet — and require that it be used for school-related purposes only. Teaching responsibility (and offering appropriate oversight) is far better than teaching censorship through a faulty filtering system.

The case of the Wisconsin student who was blocked from researching Wicca is exhibit A for what happens when filtering goes too far. At first the school used a filter that kept students from looking up religions like Buddhism — while allowing access to Christian groups. When this student complained, the school dropped the filter.

Then the monitor in the school computer lab told the student that she couldn't look up Wicca because it was too controversial. When the student protested, some people in the town accused her of satanic activity (although she is an active Christian).

Last month the school backed down — but only after being threatened with a lawsuit. The school appropriately limits Internet access during school hours to school-related projects. But after school, the students may use the computer lab on the same basis as other members of the public.

The third case — the censorship of daily devotionals in southern California schools — didn't even involve students. A number of adult staff members received the religious messages — at their request — from a local Lutheran pastor.
There's little doubt that the district may restrict the personal use of school computers by employees. But unless the staff is forbidden from using the computer to receive any personal mail — a prohibition that would be unreasonable and difficult to enforce — why would school officials want to block the devotionals?

According to the minister, the assistant superintendent was concerned that if he allowed these staff members to receive devotionals, then others might request pornography.

Lumping prayer and porn together is offensive — and wrongheaded. Surely the school district can establish guidelines for limited personal use without banning e-mail from a minister.

I assume that staff members receive at least some personal e-mail at the office. The minister is doing little more than sending a message to people who have requested it. If that isn't allowed, does that mean no personal e-mail? Or just no e-mail that goes to more than one person?

Unless the district seeks to ban all personal e-mail, they have no business banning devotional messages.

We're likely to see many more of these conflicts since schools have only just begun to figure out how to deal with the Internet. Understandably, school officials are anxious about the ramifications of the information explosion in the classroom.

But beware of simplistic and overzealous attempts to control Internet access. Schools can and must find ways to guard against the dangers of the Internet — especially for students — while simultaneously upholding the First Amendment.