School board restricts student access to Internet’s ‘controversial materials’

Wednesday, May 27, 1998

A Wisconsin school board adopted a policy last week that prevents students from accessing “controversial materials” on the Internet during school hours, but delayed a decision on Internet use during non-school hours.

The Winter school district participates in a program in which the school computers can be used by students and other members of the community to access the Internet during non-school hours.

The board adopted its school-hours policy after 15-year-old honors student Burklin Nielson accessed Web sites devoted to feminist literature, witchcraft, Buddhism and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.

Nielson's attorney Lucy Dalglish said that the controversy first began in early February after the teen-ager was ordered to log off the Internet for looking at a Web site about wicca, a kind of nature-based, benevolent witchcraft rooted in pre-Christian beliefs.

“This past summer Burklin took a course at a local university on world religions and philosophies. She was simply satisfying her intellectual curiosity when a school official in charge of Internet access deemed the material inappropriate, ” Dalglish said. “This is not a case where a student is accessing sexually explicit material.”

Dalglish said she has problems with the policy “because the term 'controversial' is too vague. Not only is it too vague, but total discretion is placed in the hands of the person supervising the Internet to determine what is 'controversial.'”

At a meeting last week, the school board announced that it would draft a different policy next month that will govern Internet users during non-school hours.

Dalglish said she is taking a “wait and see approach on whether to file a lawsuit. However, if Burklin is kicked off for looking at material, for instance, about a different religion, then I will have to file suit.”

Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, expressed reservations about the district's policy to the First Amendment Center: “What exactly does 'controversial' mean? Young people should be encouraged to explore intellectually and should have access to information. I am afraid that a vague policy like this would hamper children's ability to grow in the educational environment.”

Dr. David Scarpino, the school superintendent in Winter, said that “the policy is fine and consistent with other school districts' policies on Internet use during school hours. Our school district, like many across this nation, has entered the technological age of the Internet and had to come up with a policy that protects kids from inappropriate material.”

Scarpino added that “having a monitor decide what Web site material is controversial is no different than having a teacher in a classroom decide what's appropriate.”