The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion. ~Henry Steele Commager
I am a government censor. I am responsible for blocking certain images and ideas that might be deemed harmful to our students. I do this because of federal law and because our district would not be able to receive some funding if I didn’t. This is a roll I must play, but one that I have never relished.
I’m not saying everything on the Internet is appropriate for all ages. I would love to think that we could teach our students to exercise "real discretion," as Commager puts it, but I’m not that naive. Given unlimited reign, students will view porn and other obscene material, download copyrighted material, and flood our network with viruses. Add to that the fact that most teachers either won’t, or don’t know to monitor their students as closely as they should, and there. Like it or not, we have filters.
Regularly I get requests regarding sites that are blocked and should be opened. Most, however, are requests to block a site. If something is not already in our filter list, I always prefer to err on the side of leaving the site open unless there is a compelling reason to block the site. I’ve found that my idea of a compelling reason is often at odds with the teachers that submitted the request. Here are two cases in point…
First case – Right before Christmas, a teacher sent me a list of websites with Flash-based games (such as Miniclip.com) to be blocked. It seems his students were spending more time playing online games than doing their assignments. My response was that I wasn’t going to block a site for the entire district just because one teacher could not control his class. Furthermore, it was the week before Christmas, and there were many more teachers using these sites as a way for kids to have a little recreation. I would have been lynched.
Second case – Just last week a teacher sent me a site to block, citing "foul language." The site in question was the personal blog of a mother with an autistic child. The author of the blog tends to get as long-winded as I do with my posts. Buried deep within one of these long entries, the F-word appeared four times. This is what had upset the teacher. The offending words were part of a quotation from another site, and the author was refuting both the foul language and the reasoning of the person quoted. I found no other instance of profanity on the site. In my opinion, there was far more useful information about autism that vastly out-weighed the damage done by reading four bad words. My response went something like this…
In determining which sites to block, we have to weigh the overall offensiveness of the site and potential for causing student disruption against issues of censorship and free speech. Given the context of the language, the low occurance of it on the site, and the fact that this is not a site that many students would be visiting, the site will not be blocked.
The teacher was not happy. Obviously her attitude bothered me enough to write about it here. By reputation, this teacher is excellent in the classroom. However it pains me that she thinks that what she finds offensive should be applied to the entire district.
Most districts have committees which review challenges to books. Although the sheer volume of material would preclude its practicality, I’m wondering if it’s time to set up such committees for Internet sites, as well.