By Emily Greenhalgh
PBN Web Editor
PROVIDENCE â€“ Internet censorship is prevalent in Rhode Island public schools and damaging to the educational environment, according to a report from the stateâ€™s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The websites of PBS Kids and National Stop Bullying Day, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet and a website on global warming are among the many websites that so-called Internet filtering software has blocked from students and teachers at public schools.
The report from the ACLU of Rhode Island documents how the software has â€śhindered teachers from making use of the Internet to educate students and has hampered students from accessing relevant information in the classroom,â€ť said a release.
Internet filtering programs are designed to block certain categories of websites or websites that mention specific words. Although their primary target is to prevent access to pornography, the ACLU report called the software â€śdeeply flawedâ€ť and said that school districtsâ€™ â€śover-extensive embrace of it has a significant impact on classroom teaching.â€ť
The ACLU report â€“ â€śAccess Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Educationâ€ť â€“ said that allowing school administrators â€śvirtually unbridled discretion to determine how this technological censor will be used gives them a power over classroom teaching that would never be tolerated for offline lessons.â€ť
â€śThe excessive use of Internet filters by schools has seriously infringed on the First Amendment rights of students and teachers on a daily basis,â€ť ACLU of R.I. Policy Associate and report author Hillary Davis said in a statement. â€śInternet filtering has censored, rather than expanded, education and placed serious barriers between students and a robust understanding of the world around them. In order to best serve our students, use of filtering software must be strictly limited, with teachers able to lift the filter whenever necessary.â€ť
Through an open records request the ACLU examined the filtering software policies used in Rhode Island schools. The report found that many teachers experienced block sites, either due to flaws in the filtering software or what the ACLU called â€śover-reaching implementation of filters.â€ť Blocked site examples include: the Smithsonian website, Goodreads.com (a book recommendation site) and a YouTube video on Social Security, among many others.
The report went on to say that nearly half of the stateâ€™s school districts block students from accessing websites that the software manufacturer describes as promoting â€śpartisan historical opinionâ€ť or include information about undefined â€śanti-government groups.â€ť
The report also said that students experienced blocked sites under such â€śobviously appropriate categoriesâ€ť as books and literature, social opinion, religion and lifestyle and culture, which blocks studentsâ€™ access to pro-gay websites.
The ACLU report mentioned examples of the â€śsafe searchâ€ť keyword blocking feature blocking students from completing assignments that required looking up information about a synthetic polymer known as â€śpolyvinyl alcoholâ€ť simply because the search included the word â€śalcohol.â€ť
The report also complained about a lack of transparency to students and faculty regarding what the â€śacceptable useâ€ť of school computers actually is.
The ACLU report included a number of recommendations to â€śaddress the consequent serious impact on studentsâ€™ and teachersâ€™ First Amendment rights and on their right to access information in schools.â€ť
Recommendations included: filtering only those categories required by federal law or spyware and viruses to protect the school computer system; have written procedures in place to quickly respond to teachersâ€™ requests to unblock sites; offer students and teachers information about which sites are blocked and official responses to requests to unblock sites.
The ACLU also recommended that â€śrather than focusing on censorship, schools should spend more time educating students on Internet safety.â€ť
To view the full report visit: