The history of the legal battles over rights and freedoms in the American public school system is filled with protests, caveats, animosity, and complex legal battles that have resulted in some landmark court decisions and many unanswered questions. The appropriate use of the Internet in public schools is a contentious issue that is continuously challenged in venues like Parent-Teacher Association meetings, School Board District official gatherings, state legislatures, and the judicial system of the United States.
Public schools across the U.S. have served as litigation battlegrounds over some of the most fundamental rights and guarantees afforded by the Constitution. As a result of these legal challenges, many landmark cases now serve as blueprints for school officials and the rest of the stakeholders in public education to follow when certain issues arise. These cases deal with constitutional issues, such as the right of school administrators to edit or even censor the content of student publications, or the right of students to quietly express antiwar sentiments.
The Internet as a Point of Contention in Schools
The complexity of the Internet has made it a litigious item in public schools. When the World Wide Web began to weave its way into the fabric of American life in the mid-1990s, educators quickly realized its great potential as a teaching and learning tool in the classroom. State education budgets were increased by the federal government for the purpose of wiring schools and bringing Internet access to teachers and students. There was an overall feeling of elated hope with regard to how the Internet would revolutionize education.
Soon after schools were connected to the Internet, certain concerns began to arise. Issues like expense and technical support were easy to deal with compared to the sea of objectionable material that students could easily access from school.
As early as 1998, educators were alarmed at how easy students could access age-inappropriate and obscene material online; there were also concerns about content that may not have been prurient or morally questionable, but definitely disruptive -such as games and entertainment websites. These initial concerns were followed by other legal issues such as copyright infringement, illegal downloading and cybercrime.
Filtering Software Turns Into Censorship
Before the Internet made its splash entry into American classrooms, filtering software for the web was already installed in many home computers that children used to go online. Once these filters were installed in classroom computers, it did not take long for the first complaints of censorship to become manifest. These complaints were exacerbated when former President Bill Clinton signed a law that enacted two provisions that effectively mandated the installation of filtering software in libraries and public schools that receive federal funding.
The censorship complaints turned into notable cases, such as Ashcroft v. ACLU. This 2004 Supreme Court decision was essentially a continuation of Reno v. ACLU in 1997. It is interesting to note that these challenges by U.S. Attorney Generals to federal appellate decisions are based on the government’s interest to prohibit content, an interest that can easily run afoul of the First Amendment.
Supporters of civil liberties believe that while it is clear that Congress intends to filter out pornography from classroom computers, the fact that school officials can set the filtering parameters creates a situation that is ripe for abuse and censorship. In 2009, for example, two school districts in Tennessee blocked gay and lesbian educational sites from their classroom computers. The ACLU filed suit on the basis of a First Amendment violation and the block was lifted.
Appropriate use of the Internet in schools will more than likely continue to be a hot-button issue, and it is bound to become multidimensional. The near passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act will probably lead to an increase in monitoring of file sharing, and there are also concerns about certain online activities like online social networking and digital lockers that schools are paying attention to.
Byline: Frank E. Mann is a Houston family attorney who writes about anything family or child-related.