Should school libraries restrict access to the Internet?
Oct. 3, 2011
By John Vettese, Student Voices staff writer
Today there’s a new battle over censorship in school libraries – this one doesn’t involve banned books, but rather blocked websites. Last week, as schools across the country marked the inaugural Banned Websites Awareness Day, students and educators wondered what level of Internet access should be allowed in the school environment.
As technology has become an increasingly important component to education over the past two decades, schools began to look for ways to keep their students from accessing potentially harmful material online – and to keep them focused on their studies.
This led to website filtering, a practice that began about 10 years ago, when Congress passed the Children’s Internet Protection Act. The law required any public library that receives government funding to place filters on all their computers, preventing children from accessing obscene, pornographic or otherwise harmful material online. The law was challenged by the American Library Association, which argued it improperly required libraries to violate patrons’ First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled in United States v. American Library Association that the restrictions were reasonable in exchange for government funding.
Since then, schools have begun to see some advantages of filtering websites. With the advent of social media sites like Facebook and entertainment sites like YouTube, filtering those sites can keep you from getting distracted watching videos or posting status updates when you’ve got an assignment to work on. Additionally, it provides a buffer to bullying – for your classmates who are picked on through Facebook and Twitter, as well as in person.
But sometimes, because of the way the filters are implemented, legitimate educational websites are blocked from being used in the classroom. One Chicago librarian, Judy Gressel, told the New York Times that her school’s filters prevented her students from potentially working on a history paper about military weapons because it blocks by categories of content – games, violence or weapons. “It just got to the point that it became hard to conduct research.”
Others believe that filtering amounts to censorship. A statement by the American Library Association reads, “Filtering websites does the next generation of digital citizens a disservice. Students must develop skills to evaluate information from all types of sources in multiple formats, including the Internet. Relying solely on filters does not teach young citizens how to be savvy searchers or how to evaluate the accuracy of information.”
Some teachers use the topic of school restrictions on the Internet to get their students to discuss the broader topics of censorship and freedom of speech. Phil Goerner, a librarian in Colorado, told the Times that on Banned Websites Awareness Day, his students discussed whether schools should block sites that encourage neo-Nazi or racist beliefs.
“It makes them think about it in deeper ways than if they were just to say, ‘No, don’t block it,’ ” he said.
What do you think?
Should school libraries restrict access to the Internet? If so, how far should the restrictions go? What do you think of the Children’s Internet Protection Act? Is it constitutional? How does your school handle filtering websites? Do you think it should do things differently? Join the discussion!
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