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Censorship by Omission

Censorship by Omission

Doug Johnson doug0077@gmail.com
Library Media Connection, January/February 2010.


It really isn’t fair. Nutcase book burners get all the attention:

A fight over books depicting sex and homosexuality has riled up a small Wisconsin city, cost some library board members their positions and prompted a call for a public book burning. … The row even spread to this year’s Fourth of July parade, which included a float featuring a washing machine and a sign that read “keep our library clean.” (Hanna, 2009)

What I would like to ask is where are the headlines proclaiming the far less egregious but more widespread and harmful censorship* that is an ongoing occurrence in many, if not all, public schools today?  

Supporters of intellectual freedom (ahem, that’s us especially, librarians) do not give the censorship of materials in digital form the attention it deserves. If we did, I wouldn’t be able to round up examples like these in about ten minutes with just a Tweet:

  1. As part of my unit on WWII I wanted to demonstrate the effects of atomic testing on small Pacific islands. I found pictures I liked at Wikipedia at home. However when I went to bring the page up at school during class, it was blocked by our Internet filter. The name of the islands? “Bikini Atoll.” - New York
  2. From the my side of the fence I can’t count the number of calls we get about [our products] being down when in actuality it’s the school’s filter that’s the problem – schools pay for something, then block it. - Commercial database vendor
  3. Our Systems Security Manager decided to block delicious.com. When I went to his office to ask him why he blocked the site he opened his Internet browser (which for some reason is not affected by our district filter) and he typed something along the lines of “group sex” into the Delicious search field. As the results poured in he said, “There you go. This site is full of pornography”. When I explained to him that I could type the same query in Google, Yahoo, Bing, or any other search engine and get the same results, and after I assured him that the sites that the Delicious “group sex” results linked to were blocked by our filtering software, he scratched his head in amazement. You would think the problem would be solved….no such luck! Although delicious.com is unfiltered now, the page to login is not …he doesn’t know how to unfilter https sites. Good grief and pass the gravy! - Texas
  4. Until about a year and a half ago, Blogger and Blogspot sites were blocked in our district. Most social networking tools are still blocked now. We have access to Twitter via 3rd party applications…, but Ning, Facebook,, LinkedIn, and even the Microsoft data/doc-sharing site … are not accessible from campus. – Alabama

Despite the fact that59% … of online students … say they talk about … education-related topics, including college or college planning; learning outside of school; news; careers or jobs; politics, ideas, religion or morals; and schoolwork,” research shows that “more than half of all districts (52 percent) specifically prohibit any use of social networking sites in school.” (NSBA, 2008)

Why is it that school officials interpret the Childhood Internet Protection Act’s requirement that “sites harmful to minors” be blocked as “sites uncomfortable to adults” be blocked?

Schools have been using filters for over 10 years now. Why are stupid filtering decisions that lead to deliberate or inadvertent censorship of material of educational value still happening, even getting worse?

It’s because individual teachers, librarians, technicians, student and parents don’t speak up, take action, or ask questions. Internet censorship is a sin of omission as much as commission because too many of us are just willing to let it happen. And no, whining does not count as an action.

To you intelligent and concerned readers associated with schools that over-filter, here are some actions that you can and should take:

  1. Ask for your school’s written policy/guidelines on Internet filtering. These guidelines should describe exactly what is filtered, why it is filtered, how filtering decisions are made and who makes them. (See Mankato’s guidelines in the sidebar.) The filtering policy should also clearly explain the steps necessary to have an Internet site/resource unblocked. If your district does not have such guidelines, ask how one can get them established. Put the request in writing and send it to the tech director with a cc to the superintendent.
  2. Know your board-adopted selection/reconsideration policy. Does this policy treat materials in electronic format in the same way that it treats materials in print format? (You may find current blocking procedures are in violation of your current board policies.) Does someone who wants a website blocked need to go through the same reconsideration process required to remove a book or video from a library or classroom? If not, ask why and how the policy can be changed. Put your questions in writing and send them to the tech director with a cc: to the superintendent.
  3. Find out who supplies your Internet filtering software/hardware. Do a little research. Does the filtering producer have a religious or political bias? How customizable is the filter? How granular are its settings and blocking categories? Does it allow the creation of a white list of sites that will override the built-in sites in the filter? Does your local technology staff know how to customize the filter? Send your questions in writing to the tech director with a cc to the superintendent.
  4. Share examples of over-blocking - like the ones above - with your administrators.  Examples from your own district are the most powerful, of course.
  5. More importantly, share examples of how tools blocked in your district have been used in positive ways by educators in other schools. Keep up on how the use of tools may be changing and growing. (How social networking tools are now used for political action as well as recreational use for example.) Share these examples in writing with the tech director with a cc to the superintendent.
  6. Object to filtering decisions in writing as a group. You should, when possible, be writing as part of a larger group of concerned educators in your school: high school social studies teachers, K-12 library staff, 4th grade team, the PTO, the student council, etc.. Send your group’s objections to the tech director with a cc to the superintendent.
  7. Work to make decisions about filtering shared decisions and not leave them to the discretion of a single individual - no matter how wonderful he/she may be. Volunteer to sit on that tech committee, advisory council, reconsideration committee, or policy-revision team. Send your concerns about unilateral filtering decision in writing to the tech director with a cc to the superintendent.
  8. Don’t give up. Ning wasn’t unblocked in a day.

Technology integration specialists, get on board on this issue. Michelle Wilson, an Alabama school media specialist, says it well:

… this reactionary “let’s just block it until we can figure it out” is such a hindrance to tech integration. Teachers think there’s something inappropriate when a new tool is automatically filtered, and are so much more wary to try using it with their kids because the district created negative connotations.

Smart technology directors don’t want total responsibility in deciding what what their district blocks or chooses not to block. No decision will please all educational stakeholders when it involves values, taste and appropriateness. Using “community” standards with a group helping establish them will reduce pressure on any one individual and lead to a more positive school environment.

No one who cares about intellectual freedom should remain silent on this issue. And it’s not just a philosophical battle. Real kids in real schools are being negatively impacted by poor filtering decisions every day.

Make your voice heard.

*…the suppression of speech or deletion of communicative material which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the government or media organizations as determined by a censor. – Wikipedia, October 10, 2009



Creating and Connecting - Research and Guidelines on Online Social - and Educational – Networking. National School Board Association, 2008. <http://www.nsba.org/SecondaryMenu/TLN/CreatingandConnecting.aspx>

Hanna, Jason. Library fight riles up city, leads to book-buring demand. CNN.com/US, July 22, 2009. http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/07/22/wisconsin.book.row/index.html


ISD77 Internet Filtering Guidelines and Procedures
District Media and Technology Advisory Committee, May 2003

In order to comply with CIPA requirements and thus remain eligible for e-rate, the Mankato Area Public Schools uses a commercial filtering product, Webblocker, in conjunction with its firewall. An annual subscription is paid to the creators of Webblocker and the product is to be updated regularly.

The DMTAC recommends the following guidelines and procedures. 

  1. The filter will be set at its most lenient settings that still block graphic sexual acts and child pornography, and other illegal sites. If a pornographic or illegal site is found by a staff member to be accessible, it should be brought to the attention of the District Technology Director who will have the site immediately blocked.
  2. There will be at least one unblocked computer in each media center in a controlled area to check to see if blocked sites are rightly categorized.
  3. If a professional staff member wishes to have a site unblocked, s/he is to notify the District Technology Director who will have the site immediately unblocked.
  4. Any person wishing to have a site blocked other than reasons mentioned above must follow the same procedures for the removal of any district adopted instructional material. See school board policy 630.
  5. Since no filter is 100% accurate, responsibility for safe and appropriate use of the Internet will be with the individual user and staff members will monitor all student use of the Internet.
Posted on Sunday, January 2, 2011 at 09:57AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson | CommentsPost a Comment

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