Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Constitutionality of Internet Filters in Public Schools

Public domain image found at http://www.gr8grafix.net/DanFlynn/Resume/censored_line_art.jpg
The Governor Mifflin School District of Shillington, Pennsylvania responded to the complaints made by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after it was discovered that the district’s schools block websites that are LGBT positive while there were no blocks on anti-LGBT websites. The school district has announced it will remove the blocks instead of trying to challenge the claims made by the ACLU that this viewpoint discrimination was unconstitutional, so the case will not be brought to court.

This is far from the first time a public school was accused of using website filters to unfairly block access to a full range of information for students. A similar case was found in Camdenton, Missouri, in PFLAG v. Camdenton R-III School District, No. 2:11-cv-04212 (2012), where the district court declared the unbalanced blocking was unconstitutional.

Censorship via online filtering programs has become commonplace in public libraries and schools. In a world where harmful material can be found with just a few keystrokes, governmental protections put in place to stop children from accessing content like pornographic images have become necessary. One of the most recent federal protections was CIPA, or the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, which calls for website filtering in public areas.

The Supreme Court ruled in United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003) that the withholding of E-rate grants, which provide funding for school technology, was not unconstitutional when it comes to upholding CIPA in public libraries. The same is said of the use of filters in public schools. The ruling stated that Congress has the right under the Taxation and Spending Clause (U.S. Const., art. I, § 8) to use its funding as it saw fit and that includes whether or not to give the E-rate funds to public libraries and schools if such places do not comply to federal requirements.

However, the Supreme Court has never upheld viewpoint discrimination as constitutional. R. Trevor Hall wrote in his article, “Examining the constitutionality of Internet filtering in public schools: a US perspective” about the Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (No. 80-2043) 638 F.2d 404 (1982) case, where the court recognized that school libraries do not necessarily have the right to remove books, just because the administrations disagree with the content (p. 229). By blocking access to only one half of an argumentative topic, such as gay marriage, schools districts like Governor Mifflin go too far with CIPA filtering requirements. Under CIPA, schools are legally required to filter out harmful content to protect minors. Things that are considered harmful include:

"any picture, image, graphic image file, or other visual depiction that taken as a whole and with respect to minors, appeals to a prurient interest in nudity, sex...; ...and taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value as to minors" (CIPA, 2000)

According to Barbara Jansen’s article, “Internet Filtering 2.0,” while more students today have access to the Internet at home, there is still a significant number that rely on school access for projects and independent research (p. 49). In an age where the Internet has become a major source of research for students of all ages, First Amendment rights groups meticulously watch for cases where schools may overzealously block materials that might not require restriction under CIPA’s guidelines.

Ultimately, the courts give broad digression to the schools in deciding what is safe for its students. In Governor Mifflin School District's case, the blocks pick the sites up as websites about “sexuality,” which could be considered too broad a filter. Other famous cases like Bethel School District v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675 (1986) have defended schools' decisions to do what they considered necessary to keep the peace at their institutions. The balance of free speech and the protection of minors will most likely keep tensions high in academic settings, with most of the support of the court going to the schools.

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References
Jansen, B. A. (2010). INTERNET FILTERING 2.0: CHECKING INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM AND PARTICIPATIVE PRACTICES AT THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR. Knowledge Quest, 39(1), 46-53.


Migdail-Smith, L. (2013, March 15). Mifflin says Internet filters eased to address speech rights; ACLU weighs in. Retrieved from http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=459086
 

Trevor Hall, R. (2006). Examining the constitutionality of Internet filtering in public schools: a US perspective. Education & The Law, 18(4), 227-245.

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