In growing numbers, schools are installing software designed to block students from accessing obscene or violent Internet sites. Supporters say the software protects kids, but opponents call it censorship

Supporters of Internet filters say they are trying to prevent students from viewing sites with inappropriate material, such as pornography. They argue that by installing such software on school computers, children will be protected from the negative aspects of the Internet.

Those opposed, however, are concerned that filtering software prevents students from accessing credible and educationally important sites. Often this practice hinders student journalists by blocking sites they may need to research stories. Many opponents also believe that filtering the Internet on school computers violates the First Amendment rights of students.

In addition, opponents are concerned about viewpoint discrimination in deciding which sites to block. For instance, there have been numerous complaints that pro-choice sites have been blocked while anti-abortion sites have not. There have also been reports that sites offering emotional support and health information to homosexuals have been unjustly blocked.

The number of schools in the U.S. connected to the Internet has grown enormously in a very short time -- from 3 percent in 1994 to 63 percent in 1999, according to the Department of Education. Consequently, the debate over who should control the Internet access of others, particularly minors, has become just as widespread.

One of the most common methods of control is Internet filters. Many varieties of commercial filtering software can be purchased and installed on any computer. These programs contain an internal list of sites to block and also use keywords to determine which sites to block. When a user requests a specific site, the site is usually scanned to detect these keywords.

Congress is currently considering two bills designed to increase the use of filtering software in public schools. The Children's Internet Protection Act, S 97, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, would require any school receiving "universal service assistance" to install technology that "blocks material deemed harmful to minors." Universal service assistance is a service that offers discounts on Internet access to schools that may not be able to afford it otherwise. It was included in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to ensure that all schools can receive quality, low-cost Internet access.

The Safe Schools Internet Act, HR 368, sponsored by Rep. Bob Franks, R-N.J., is currently pending in the House of Representatives. This bill would also require schools with Internet access to install a filtering method of some kind and would prohibit schools that do not use filters from receiving universal service assistance.

A small number of states have passed laws mandating Internet filters in schools, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona and South Dakota. Bills designed to require filtering software in public schools are pending in several states.

In New Jersey, Assemblyman Steve Corodemus, R-Monmouth, proposed a bill in March seeking to block sites that fall under any one of several categories, including those that "promote" intolerance, violence, "extreme behavior" or satanic cults. Bill A-2196 would require libraries and schools to formulate a plan to block objectionable sites, including installing a filter of some kind.

A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in January would require schools to adopt an "acceptable-use policy" for school computers. HB 2324 would require schools to use filtering software or connect to an Internet server that uses filters.

Other states have introduced comparable bills this session. HB 543 in Alabama and SB 583 in Missouri would both require public schools that provide Internet access to either install filtering software or connect to an Internet server that uses filters. Indiana introduced a similar bill in January, but it died.

A large number of individual school boards have also adopted Internet-filtering policies. New York City's school board began requiring the city's schools to install filters in 1999. The Censorware Project, an anti-filtering organization, maintains a list on its Web site where students can report schools that filter the Internet. Students from Connecticut, Ohio, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, Texas, Illinois and Washington have all reported the use of filters in their schools.

But even as the popularity of Internet filters grows, so does criticism of the software. Opponents argue that teachers should be responsible for -- and have the final say on -- what is allowed in their classrooms.

"We feel that teacher supervision accomplishes every legitimate objective of maintaining discipline in a scholastic environment without adding the unnecessary element of bringing in a corporation to decide what people may or may not see," said Michael Sims, a member of The Censorware Project.

Peacefire, another group that opposes the use of Internet filtering software, was created in 1996 to represent people under the age of 18 in issues involving freedom of speech and the Internet. The organization's Web site provides instructions on how to disable several popular commercial filters, including X-Stop, I-Gear, BESS and Cyber Patrol. It also features a "blocked site of the day," where members list legitimate sites that have been blocked by various filters. Examples of sites reported blocked include the National Organization for Women and the Illinois Federation for Human Rights.

On the other side of the debate is David Burt, a librarian and founder of Filtering Facts, an organization that seeks to "educate the public and media about Internet software filters." Burt said Internet filters in public schools do not block educational material. He said studies have shown that 63 percent of public schools use filters.

"Obviously they work well, or schools wouldn't be adopting them," Burt said. "They'd be going with policies instead ... if filters made it impossible for children to do schoolwork."

In his research on Internet filters in libraries, Burt said he found the amount of "useful information" that is blocked to be "tiny."

Burt said he does not believe Internet filters violate students' First Amendment rights, citing a Supreme Court decision that gave school libraries limited authority to remove material they consider vulgar from their shelves.

"The school has a definite purpose, and pornography really has no place in that purpose, so I don't think there is any free-speech issue with that," he said.

Burt said he supports teachers and administrators ultimately having the power to override the filtering software if it blocks a site they consider useful.

One example of filtering software gone awry occurred last year in the New York City public schools. The city's board of education purchased a commercial filter, I-Gear, and chose sites to block from a list of categories. The five categories chosen were sex, nudity, hate, racism and weapons.

As a result, anything that might somehow fall into one of those broad categories was blocked. Students and teachers reported being denied access to sites such as CNN, Planned Parenthood and sites dealing with topics such as AIDS and breast cancer. Even passages from the novel The Grapes of Wrath were blocked.

The Student Press Law Center's own Web site has not been spared by Internet filters. In one incident two years ago, after a high school in Ohio began using the filtering software BESS, student journalists discovered that it had blocked the SPLC Web site. While the rest of the school still uses BESS, the journalism department's computers are no longer filtered.

Administrators of the Davenport School District in Iowa reached a compromise with opponents of filtering software in January. Last year, the filtering software WebSense was installed on all computers in the school district. After student journalists experienced problems accessing sites they needed to research articles, district officials agreed to remove the software from one computer in each school's journalism office. The software was removed from one computer in each school's library as well.

Bennett Haselton, creator and member of Peacefire, said the issue of Internet filtering has simply become a political debate.

"Outside groups like the American Family Association, and some of their favorite Congressional representatives, have gotten wise to the public relations value of calling for mandatory blocking software in schools," Haselton said. "Special-interest groups are using it as a political football."

reports, Spring 2000