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Censorship Reaches Ridiculous Extremes

A host of recent actions by government agencies, school boards and other institutions attempts to limit what we read, see and hear -- sometimes with debilitating effects.
 
 
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Humpback whales, the asexual reproduction of mushrooms and House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

These are dangerous topics that children, or adults for that matter, should not be learning about.

This statement sounds ridiculous, but that is effectively the message being sent by the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which mandates filters being placed on internet-linked computers at public schools and libraries to protect children from indecent material.

However, "indecent" is defined by the mere presence of a wide range of keywords and phrases, including "breast," "pussy," "under18" and cum." While these terms may be frequently used in XXX porn sites, they are also used in different contexts in serious news stories, job training sites and government web pages -- for example to refer to someone who has graduated magna cum laude. Given the wide net cast by the key word-based internet filters, they end up denying youth and adults access to sites dealing with public health, biology and zoology, academics and more.

CIPA is just one of a host of recent actions by government agencies, school boards and other institutions to limit what we read, see and hear. While censorship is nothing new, the growth of the internet, the general rightward shift of the government and the institution of the war on terror have recently taken things up a notch.

The moves are usually under the guise of protecting people from pornographic material or terrorism. But on many different levels, this censorship has debilitating effects.

CIPA was introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and passed by Congress in December 2000, but then the American Civil Liberties Union and American Library Association filed a suit seeking to overturn it. The bill was put into action in schools around the country last fall.

But in May 2002 the portion of the act related to public libraries was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. Proponents of the bill appealed to the Supreme Court, which is now considering whether filtering will be required in public libraries that receive federal funds.

The explosive growth of the internet over the past decade has opened up a whole new world of information, a wealth of knowledge at the fingertips available to anyone with access to a computer and modem. While it revolutionized information technology, it also set new standards. The use of the internet has become not just a luxury but a necessity for "making it" in many careers and other aspects of life.

In February the Free Expression Policy Project (FEPP), a youth-oriented anti-censorship group, filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief before the Supreme Court arguing against CIPA and including the testimony of other youth groups opposed to filtering.

And the internet isn't the only place where the information that young people receive is being censored. One of the main thing teenagers and other young people look for on the internet is sexual information, including potentially life-saving facts on safe sex, contraception, STDs and HIV/AIDS. Under CIPA, that is almost impossible, given that the filters screen out not only pornographic sites but even ones that refer to humpback whales, Dick Armey or pussy willows.

With cyberspace closed as an option, students might also look to their school clinics or health classes. But there they run into another brick wall. As part of the 1996 welfare reform laws schools receive special federal funds to teach abstinence-only education. This policy has been criticized by the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association, the ACLU and others as blatant censorship -- censorship with potentially devastating effects, since students who don't learn about safe sex are at risk of catching HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. It is also ineffective. Studies show that teens who receive abstinence-only education are at no less risk of teen pregnancy or STDs than those who don't.

And reports have already shown that abstinence-only education is creating a generation of ignorant youth. The ACLU notes that one California boy in a sex-ed class asked where his cervix was, while others maintained they could get pregnant from having oral sex. Teachers who deviate from the curriculum are in trouble -- for example a seventh-grade teacher in Belton, Missouri was disciplined for simply telling students that oral sex does not lead to pregnancy.

"The proper response under abstinence-only policy would have been that only complete abstinence can prevent pregnancy," said Stephanie Elizondo Griest, communications director of the FEPP.

If straight teenagers are kept in the dark about their budding sexuality, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens have it even worse. Most internet filters automatically block any site having to do with homosexuality.

"The category [blocked by the filter] will often be 'homosexuality/gayporn,'" said Griest. ''But there are some very good public health sites dealing with homosexuality. How are these kids supposed to find out about their sexuality if they can't do it at school and can't do it over the internet?"

One way students can get support is through the gay/lesbian and gay/straight alliance clubs that are springing up on high school campuses around the country. But even these are not safe havens. Throughout the south, Midwest and other parts of the country, schools are moving to shut the clubs down. Usually they deny funding, often meaning that in order to comply with anti-discrimination law they end up also pulling funding from student clubs across the board.

The attacks on these clubs and much of the censorship students suffer is fueled by the rightward political movement of the current federal administration and local school boards and legislatures. Many of the successful internet filtering companies are linked to conservative groups, and the abstinence-only curriculum has a heavy church-based focus, with Christian right groups receiving federal funding to institute their curricula in schools. In 1993 the Supreme Court ruled against the inclusion of references to Christianity and the concept of "inviting Christ as a chaperone on dates" in abstinence-only curriculums. But the teaching of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and other religious connotations remain.

"Like efforts to discourage the teaching of evolution, abstinence-only education is promoted by religious groups and individuals in an attempt to impose their own beliefs on all students in public schools," says an ACLU report.

Some parents' and religious groups' fear of any sexual content extends beyond sex-ed to all text books. For example in Lynchburg, Virginia in 2000 school board members would not approve a science book unless a picture of a vagina was cut out or covered. Just recently in New York, a high school teacher was officially reprimanded for putting Russell Banks' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 novel "Continental Drift" on an optional reading list because of five pages that contained material some parents dubbed inappropriate.

Student newspapers are also regularly censored, for everything from articles about sex, sexual assault and drugs to editorials that are political or critical of the school administration.

"The most common justification is that school officials see something they perceive will reflect negatively on the school, whether it's criticizing the cafeteria food or how the school spends its money," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which received 2,525 requests for aid on censorship cases in 2001. "These are institutions that can't deal with public scrutiny. They function more as CEOs of companies than educators."

And it doesn't stop with teens.

If the portion of CIPA that affects libraries becomes law, it will also affect the large portion of adults who rely on libraries for their internet access. Since these are mostly lower income adults, and a disproportionate number of minorities who don't have computers and internet access at home, the FEPP's amicus brief argues that CIPA essentially widens the already vast digital divide, putting people from certain demographics at a significant disadvantage in job searches and other endeavors.

"One of the big problems with internet filters is their exacerbation of the digital divide" said Griest. "In this day and age internet access is essential to our democracy. People who don't have computers at home are at a big disadvantage."

The influence of the Christian right has also swayed government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health to remove information about sexuality and abortion from their web sites.

"The CDC is under siege by those who want to replace research-based prevention [of STDs and HIV] with ideology," said James Wagoner, president of the group Advocates for Youth.

Wagoner noted that the abstinence-only campaign is "quickly morphing into an anti-condom campaign."

"It's ideology versus science," he said. "This would be considered censorship in any day and age, but to do this in this era of AIDS is unthinkably irresponsible."

A group of legislators led by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) have been protesting the removal of information from government web sites. And sex isn't the only thing the government wants to censor. Civil liberties proponents also worry that the war on terrorism will cause or is already causing censorship, either outright or in the form of self-censorship. The fear of government surveillance, including the provisions in the Patriot Act that allow internet monitoring and spying on what people obtain from libraries and bookstores can't help but have a stultifying effect on the free exchange of information.

Marvin Rich, program director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, notes that the current political climate led even the traditionally liberal University of California at Berkeley to prohibit an administrator from sending out a letter with quotes from radical Emma Goldman, as part of a fundraising attempt to preserve the university's historic Emma Goldman papers.

"The vice-chancellor for public affairs got very upset, saying people would think the university was against the war in Iraq, which is something the school can't take a position on," said Rich, noting that the school eventually reversed its position and let the letter go out.

Is the censorship situation worse today than ever before?

While it might seem like it to some, Rich gives a reality check. "All these people think it's worse now than it ever was," he said. "But the truth is it comes and goes. There have always been huge attempts by the government to control what people read and see."

Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.