Recently NCAC was contacted by a high school student who was having difficulty accessing particular LGBT websites from his school. Upon further investigation this student uncovered the likely culprit- an internet filtering policy that includes the blocking of “Sites that provide information, promote, or cater to gays, lesbians, swingers, other sexual orientations or practices, or a particular fetish.” The policy is careful to point out, “This category does not include sites that are sexually gratuitous in nature which would typically fall under the Pornography category.” In other words, the policy explicitly targets what it calls “Alternative Lifestyles.” But not all sites having to do with homosexuality are considered suspect by the school’s filtering software. Not surprisingly, the same software allows access to sites that condemn homosexuality, or advocate for “reparative therapy.” AKA: Viewpoint Discrimination. It’s not cool, and it’s not very constitutional either.
This situation is not an isolated one, and raises important questions about the filtering software school districts are using in order to comply with Federal guidelines such as CIPA. Who’s establishing these software settings? How are school districts determining what web content to block? And perhaps most importantly, is there a system in place that empowers students and educators to effectively challenge filtering policy that hinders public education? It is unclear if this particular school district is aware of the constitutionally suspect filtering policy in effect, or if that decision was made at the state or corporate level— the language of the policy seems to be taken directly from the filter manufacture, Blue Coat.
All of this suggests a need for greater transparency in how filtering policy is decided upon. What is clear is that students and educators should be aware of the policy in effect in their particular school, as well as what content is being blocked. Some see internet filters as a necessary evil in schools. Others advocate that students would actually be safer and have more learning opportunities without them. But while the debate develops, let’s ensure that students’ right to information is not being trampled.
If you are a student or a teacher and suspect an internet filter is restricting your access in ways it shouldn’t, contact NCAC today. As one colleague said: “If you don’t see something, say something.”