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Here's how Online Censorship is Affecting Schools Across America

Schools are censoring websites not just for explicit content but also for topics like suicide prevention, sex education, and even NASA
PUBLISHED APR 13, 2024
Cover Image Source: LGBTQ | Photo by David Silvermann | Getty Images
Cover Image Source: LGBTQ | Photo by David Silvermann | Getty Images

Accessing the plethora of information on the internet has become an uphill task for students across America since more schools censoring websites not just to block explicit content, but also to restrict exposure to topics such as suicide prevention, sex education, and even NASA.

Cover Image Source: Pexels/Max Fischer
Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Max Fischer

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), enacted in 2000, mandates that schools receiving federal funding must implement internet filters to prevent students from accessing obscene or harmful material. However, many districts go beyond the requirements of CIPA, blocking websites based on their own interpretations of what is appropriate for students.

In Rockwood School District, located in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, students have encountered frustrating barriers while trying to complete assignments. From being unable to access images for art projects to facing restrictions on researching topics like LGBTQ+ rights, students often find themselves thwarted by web filters that deem certain content inappropriate.

Many users experienced downtime like this on Reddit.|Getty Images|Photo by Leon Neal
Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Leon Neal

The issue is caused because of the use of web filtering software that categorizes websites into various groups. While these categories are intended to guide schools in blocking harmful content, they often lead to overblocking, restricting access to legitimate educational resources.

Moreover, the criteria used by filtering companies to classify websites are not always transparent to schools, making it difficult to discern why certain sites are blocked. "We’re setting up a system in which students, by the accident of geography, are getting very different kinds of education. Do we really want that to be the case? Is that fair?" questions Catherine Ross, professor emeritus of law at George Washington University.

College students listen to a lecture at the University of California at San Diego campus. (Photo by David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Source: Photo by David Butow Corbis | Getty Images

The consequences of overzealous filtering are significant. Students are deprived of access to essential information on various topics. This not only impedes their academic pursuits but also undermines their well-being and safety. For students who rely solely on school internet access, these restrictions can have far-reaching implications, limiting their exposure to diverse perspectives and critical information.

The debate over web filtering in schools raises broader questions about censorship, constitutional rights, and educational equity. Critics argue that excessive censorship infringes on students' rights to free speech and access to information, perpetuating disparities in education based on geography and ideology.

While some advocacy groups have pushed for reform and greater transparency in web filtering policies, the issue remains contentious. "It’s challenging to find accurate information a lot of times," says Maya Perez, a senior in Fort Worth, Texas.

Pexels | RF._.studio
Image Source: Pexels | Photo by RF._.studio

In response to mounting concerns, some students and parents have taken action. In Texas, students are advocating for legislation to limit school censorship, while organizations like the ACLU continue to challenge overblocking at the local level.

"There are signs the problem is getting worse. I’m worried there’s a lot more content filtering reemerging," believes Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas.

"Censorship is a winning issue right now," says Samuels, co-founder of Students Engaged in Advancing Texas. However, addressing the root causes of internet censorship in schools will require a concerted effort to balance student safety with the principles of free expression and academic freedom.

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