Book Banning in the 21st Century

The time-honored practice of banning and burning books is alive and well in America's education system today, albeit with a 21st century twist. In an effort to shield innocent minds from online "smut," the Children's Internet Protection Act -- or CIPA -- has mandated that all public schools and libraries using federal funds for Internet use or connections must install a filtering system by this July or risk losing the aid altogether. Not only does this directly impinge upon the free expression rights of youth and adults, it subverts the education process as a whole.

Last fall, the Free Expression Policy Project examined more than 70 studies on the effectiveness of filters and concluded that the systems are inherently flawed. Multiple programs -- including Net Nanny, SurfWatch, CYBERsitter, and BESS -- blocked House Majority Leader Richard "Dick" Armey's official Web site upon detecting the word "dick." I-Gear blocked a United Nations report on "HIV/AIDS: The Global Epidemic," while Smartfilter blocked Marijuana: Facts for Teens, a brochure published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In hundreds of cases, filters censored artistic sites, public health information, and communications dealing with sexuality education, largely because the technology relied on key phrases like "over 18," "sex," "breast," and "pussy" (hence, X-Stop's blocking of "pussy willow" searches). Moreover, the political agendas of some manufacturers were reflected through their censoring of such topics as human rights, criticism of filtering systems, and homosexuality. Nancy Willard at the University of Oregon's Center for Advanced Technology in Education also discovered an unsettling relationship between some prominent filtering companies and conservative religious groups. Several filtering systems with a major presence in public schools have a history of functioning as religious Internet Service Providers and/or espousing conservative philosophies. This delegation of educational decisions to companies with religious agendas poses a great danger to the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

To make matters worse, most filtering systems refuse to publicize the list of sites they block, which in effect prevents school districts from the ability to detect these hidden biases. Congress has essentially forced public schools to turn over major decision-making power to private companies with profit and/or ideological motives.

In the year and a half since CIPA was enacted, our organization has received letters from disgruntled teachers across America. A California high school teacher who called filters a "frightening" form of "modern day censorship" noted "I have been unable to ask questions about filtering policies without being made to feel that I must be looking up porn sites on my lunch break." Students have also written to express their frustration. Among their research topics rendered virtually impossible by many filters are school violence, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, AIDS, mental illnesses, and -- in one case -- the asexual reproduction of mushrooms. For privileged students, these filters are more an annoyance than anything else: They simply wait until they get home to their personal computers to conduct their research. But that's not an option for everyone. While 86.3 percent of households earning $75,000 and above annually had Internet access in the United States in 2000 (according to a Department of Commerce study), only 12.7 percent of households earning less than $15,000 did. This so-called "digital divide" puts black and Latino students at a distinct disadvantage, as they are only half as likely to have Internet access at home as whites.

Across the nation, school districts, libraries, city councils, and free speech organizations have rallied together to fight CIPA. On March 25, the federal court in Philadelphia will hear the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union's challenge to the law's library provisions. At least one school district in Eugene, Oregon, has refused to install filters altogether, relying instead on stringent student monitoring and a well-enforced acceptable use policy. Indeed, there are countless better ways to keep students from sites that are inappropriate in school, including training in media literacy, instilling critical thinking skills, and quality sex education. Such methods will prove far more effective in preparing youngsters for adult life in a democratic society than attempting to censor society through a filter.

The Internet has widely been touted as a revolution in democratic communication, but that doesn't quite apply to students and adults who rely on public schools and libraries for access. Perhaps what's really needed is a more contemporary version of A. J. Liebling's famous quote: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." With filtering systems, "Freedom of the Internet is guaranteed only to those who own a computer."

Marjorie Heins is executive director of the Free Expression Policy Project in New York City.


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