Students’ Rights v. Filtered Information on School Computers
The ever-widening reach of digital media is proving to be a challenge for school systems trying to manage the information that students have access to. However, some districts have gone too far, and are in fact flouting students’ First Amendment rights by thwarting the free flow of information.
According to a recent article in Education Week, “Schools cannot block access to information on the Internet any more than they can engage in viewpoint-based discrimination toward the books on the [library] shelves.” Joshua Block, a lawyer with the ACLU, and author of the Education Week article The Legal Cost of Improper Internet Censorship, explains that student access to viewpoint-based information became a matter of settled law when the “U.S. Supreme Court ruled 30 years ago that public schools cannot engage in viewpoint-based censorship of library books.” Block notes that simply because technology has evolved, does not mean that the law has changed.
The issue came to the attention of the ACLU when the organization received what Block describes as a “disturbing number of reports from students who were blocked from accessing websites about college scholarships for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers; anti-bullying resources; and activities for student-led gay-straight alliances.” The schools were—sometimes inadvertently—using filtering software configured to block the websites.
Earlier this year a federal district court upheld students’ rights in the landmark case, PFLAG v. Camdenton R-III School District, ruling that students do not forego their First Amendment rights when using a school computer. As Block explains:
The federal court made clear that when a school district intentionally uses a discriminatory filter, it is engaging in viewpoint discrimination.
The federal district court’s groundbreaking decision in the Camdenton case should be a warning to school districts. As technology changes, schools must be aware that all outposts in the marketplace of ideas should be open to students, whether on the bookshelves or the Internet. They must adhere to the same standards of viewpoint neutrality that apply anywhere else in a school library.