By Johanna Kaiser, Development & Communications Associate
Academic freedom is often discussed on college campuses, but the importance of being able to learn without restriction starts much earlier than a student's first day of higher education. Unfortunately, Rhode Island schools have not always maintained open and free opportunities for students to access the information the need to learn.
A 2013 report by our office titled "Access Denied: How Internet Filtering in Schools Harms Public Education" examined the flawed Internet filtering software used by schools and found that even as students gained greater access to information through the Internet, barriers to information are being put up by the schools themselves. Rather than using these content filters solely to prevent access to “pornography” on school computers, school administrators used their discretion to decide what would and wouldn’t be censored in the classroom.
So, what were students banned from viewing? The websites of PBS Kids, National Stop Bullying Day, and the Smithsonian, and videos about Social Security and the Nutcracker ballet, just to name a few. It’s easy to see how lessons can be derailed with these overly broad filter settings. While blocking of these seemingly arbitrary topics seems absurd, what is more troubling is the blocking of arguably more controversial but just as important content.
The ACLU of RI’s review also found that websites on climate change and LGBT rights were blocked, as well as sites that, as defined by the software company, “promote partisan historical opinion” or that include any information about undefined “anti-government groups.” Inexplicably, websites categorized as “books and literature,” “social opinion,” and “religion” were also blocked from students, who were likely studying the very same topics in the classroom.
This hinders students' education and makes it difficult for students to develop their own informed opinions of the world without the undue influence of school administrators’ own opinions. We’ve made great progress with legislation requiring schools to maintain a detailed written policy regarding the use of their filters and requiring districts to reevaluate requests for unblocking annually to determine if any changes to the filter must be made. I hope you will join the push for passage of this legislation in the next General Assembly session so we can stop this censorship and ensure students have access to all the facts they need to earn a meaningful education.
Of course, it’s not just what students can read and listen to that we need to protect. We must also protect what they write and say. Public school students maintain the First Amendment rights to free expression and free association when they are in school. That means students can, with some limitations, generally express their opinions with their clothes, in newspapers and flyers, or at rally or protests. Still, the ACLU of RI receives complaints every year from students whose rights were infringed. We respond to such violations as swiftly as we are able, but the first line of defense is a student knowing their rights and knowing how to fully exercise and protect them.