A new report from the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU finds flawed Internet filtering software and unaccountable public school administrators are effectively censoring student access to the web.
Among the material that's been blocked in Rhode Island schools: the Smithsonian web site, a video clip of the Nutcracker ballet, and a You Tube video on Social Security.
In one case, students researching an assignment on a synthetic polymer known as "polyvinyl alcohol" could not access relevant web sites because of the presence of the word "alcohol."
More troubling, though, is a systemic block on controversial political speech. More than half the state's school districts, according to the ACLU, "block students from accessing websites that, by the software manufacturer's own definition, 'promote partisan historical opinion' or that include any information about undefined 'anti-government groups.'"
A few districts "block, or warn students about accessing, websites in such obviously-appropriate categories as 'books and literature,' 'social opinion,' and 'religion.'" One of the filtering categories that a few districts use - "Lifestyle & Culture" - "has been known" to block access to pro-gay rights sites, according to the ACLU.
The report found school districts have no meaningful Internet access policy, leaving individual administrators to make freelance decisions, with no real transparency or oversight.
The ACLU calls for school districts to restrict access only as required by federal law (no pornography) and to protect the districts' networks (i.e. blocking spyware and viruses, preventing the use of excessive bandwidth, etc.).
The ACLU says there should be written policies about responding quickly to teachers' requests to unblock sites, with a presumption that such requests will be honored.
The report also calls for more transparency - districts, for instance, should provide clear information on website categories they are blocking and document how they've responded to teacher requests to unblock sites.
Representative Art Handy, a Cranston Democrat, has filed legislation that would require districts to adopt clear policies on the use of filtering software and the procedures for teachers to request the unblocking of sites.