Freedom to Learn
Head for the Edge, LMC, Jan/February 2012
The guy who prepares my taxes says that good citizens pay every penny they owe in taxes - but not one cent more. That pretty well summarizes a sensible view of compliance with any law. Follow it, but don’t go overboard.
A driver is not more law-abiding when going ten miles per hour under the speed limit.
Unfortunately, too many school technology decision-makers “hyper-comply” with CIPA - the Children’s Internet Protection Act. Tumblr, Wikipedia, YouTube, and even the Google search engine have all be singled out as violating CIPA by schools around the country. Some school districts have just flat out blocked any sites that use SSL to encrypt the data because Orwellian administrators can’t see what their network users are reading and writing when sending or receiving data from these sites. Since GoogleApps in Education uses SSL, schools have been blocking that very useful tool as well.
Just as a reminder, CIPA reads: “The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene, (b) child pornography, or (c) harmful to minors.” The law does not read, “sites that are uncomfortable for adults.”
Smart schools practice “due diligence” in preventing access to things that are “harmful to minors.” This means filtering at a reasonable level. It means adult monitoring of student computer use. It mean having, teaching and enforcing an understandable Acceptable (or Responsible) Use Policy.
Due diligence can have different meanings to reasonable people, but it does not mean using any crackpot scare tactic to block access to useful information, tools, and experiences. It does not mean relying solely on over-blocking by web filters. It does not mean making knee-jerk blocking decisions by single individuals in an organization.
The Federal Department of Education’s Director of Education Technology, Karen Cator states “sites … deemed appropriate … can be unblocked. So having the process in place for unblocking sites is definitely important” and reminds educators that unblocking sites deemed appropriate will not but E-rate funding at risk.
My real concern with filters themselves is not over blocking or under blocking. My concern, like that of anyone who believes intellectual freedom is important, is over who decides and controls what is blocked. Do I seriously think my students’ education is jeopardized because they can’t get to Pandora from the computers in our district. Not really. What I do worry about is when decisions about what is blocked are unilaterally made - by either an administrator, a technology director, a technician, or a noisy parent. Today it may be Pandora that’s blocked. Tomorrow it may be the websites of Planned Parenthood or Rush Limbaugh. The day after that, any website or web tool that a left or right wingnut community member may object to. Where does it end?
Librarians, we need to take a leadership role in addressing school district policy-making - working with our advisory committees, our administrative groups, our school boards and our professional associations to teach, maintain and extend the principals of intellectual freedom to the online world. Decisions about allowing access or limiting access should be done following a procedure and with input from a group representing a wide-range of stakeholders. Much like what librarians have been advocating (and largely succeeding in getting) in response to book challenges.
When your school blocks a website, is there a “reconsideration” process in place? Does the one wishing to take the resource away from learners need to file a formal challenge? Does an established committee meet to examine the site, discuss its appropriateness, look at reviews and examine if and how it has been used in other districts? Does the recommendation eventually go to the school board for a final decision about keeping or removing access? If not, why not?
As counter intuitive as it sounds, I’ve often wondered if a librarian filed a formal “challenge” when a website was unilaterally blocked and forced a reconsideration process, the challenge might be a way to actually get a site examined and restored. Hmmmm….
Banned Books Week has been a successful effort by the American Library Association for raising public consciousness about the dangers of print censorship. It’s helped keep Harry Potter, Anne Frank, Lucky, Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn a part of students’ cultural experiences. Banned Book Week is a good, good thing.
But ALA (and ISTE), if we are truly committed to “Freedom to Read” what we really need in today’s world is a Blocked Bytes Week that addresses the egregious blocking done not to just information online, but productivity tools and social networking sites as well. Perhaps we could create a new manifesto: “Freedom to Learn.”
Barseghian, Tina. Straight from the DOE: Dispelling Myths About Blocked Sites, Mindshift blog, April 26, 2011 <http://tinyurl.com/filteringfacts>