Although his state adopted a law this year that requires schools either to implement strict policies on Internet use or to use Internet-filtering software, South Dakota Rep. Mike Koehn remains adamantly against it.
“You can’t ensure anything,” the Republican lawmaker argued in a recent interview. “You are setting up schools for lawsuit after lawsuit. And who’s going to define ‘obscene’ for this bill?”
But Rep. Roger W. Hunt--a fellow Republican who sponsored the bill and also serves as the speaker of the state House--countered in a separate interview that the legislation was necessary. “What this legislation does is give educators and school districts the opportunity to make sure their students’ time is spent on worthwhile pursuits,” he said.
Across the country, legislatures are debating their roles in regulating access to the World Wide Web in schools. Many state lawmakers, responding either to pressure within their own states or proposed federal legislation that would mandate Internet regulations for schools, have decided to take on the complex issue.
According to separate data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Civil Liberties Union, 15 states have passed legislation since 1997 that regulates Internet use in some way in their schools.
“There has definitely been a gradual increase in the number [of bills] that pass each year,” said Pam Greenberg, a program principal for the Denver-based NCSL.
She said that the number of legislatures writing and passing bills requiring schools to filter the Internet has increased, in part because of the increase in the number of schools with access to the worldwide computer network.
Filtering involves using computer software that can either be loaded onto an individual computer or a computer network to block out Web pages based on a set of criteria. Filters can block out pages by checking for certain words or they can block a list of Web pages that fall under predetermined objectionable categories.
“There has been a growing trend toward filtering,” said Chad Nykamp, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, a Washington-based organization that promotes Judeo-Christian family values. “There is real power behind [filtering use] at the local level. People are really honing in on what happens in their home towns,” Mr. Nykamp said.
And, just last week, leaders in the Internet industry held a news conference in Washington to announce the launch of a new Web site, GetNetWise, a collection of resources that will allow parents and educators to browse through information on different tools they can use for restricting Internet access, ways to report criminal activity on the Internet, and a list of appropriate sites for children. The new site can be accessed at www.getnetwise.org.
Nationally, education and technology groups toe both sides of the line, giving advice on Internet use in schools and filtering in general.
Jon Bernstein, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said school systems are “best equipped to make the decision [on whether to use filters] themselves.”
“The appropriate entity to make this decision is the school board and school district,” he said. “A lot of schools do have something in place. If the school district is comfortable with just having an acceptable-use policy and monitoring, I think that’s fine.” Acceptable-use policies set standards on school computer use and student responsibilities.
Shari Steele, the director of legal services for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, takes things a step further. Ms. Steele, whose San Francisco-based group works to protect civil liberties in the use of computers, said any restriction on Internet use in schools is wrong.
“I think it is unconstitutional, and it’s hurting free speech,” she said. “These institutions are funded by the government, and they’re not allowed to do anything that hurts free speech.”
But Donna Rice Hughes, the vice president of Enough is Enough, a Washington-based group that seeks to protect children from pornography and sexual predators on the Internet, said that mandating filters in schools is acceptable. She supports a proposal in Congress to require that schools and libraries receiving E-rate funding buy and use filtering software.
Ms. Hughes, the author of Kids Online: Protecting your Children From Cyberspace, defended filtering legislation as “empowering schools to take needed action.”
“It empowers them to do what they want to do,” she said. “This legislation supports them to do the right thing.”
David Burt, the president of Filtering Facts, a nonprofit organization based in Lake Oswego, Ore., that provides information about online filters, is in favor of Internet filtering in schools but believes they should do more than is mandated. “There needs to be a policy [on Internet use] as well,” he said.
“Teachers and parents who rely totally on filters have a false sense of security, but filters are useful tools,” Mr. Burt said. “They are the best tools we have.”
Even as the debate wears on, however, many school systems are simply acting on their own to pick filtering software and write policies for Internet use.
Tennessee Connect Tenn Director Jackie Shrago said that all of Tennessee’s public schools have had filtered Internet access since last fall. Connect Tenn is a division within the state education department.
The statewide filtered Internet service is updated every night and has blocked access to 7 million Web pages so far. The 900,000 students who use Tennessee schools’ 100,000 computers cannot access pornography, hate speech, violent material, chat rooms, MTV, games, or World Wide Web sites on cheating in school.
Ms. Shrago said Internet use in the state’s schools actually has increased since the filtering began because teachers feel more comfortable about using the Internet.
George Amend, the director of technology and students for the 11,000-student Central Valley school district in Washington state, said his district is switching filtering-software providers because officials there have not been happy with the blocking of the 1,200 computers available to district students. Their software, they say, blocks out too much material in some situations and not enough in others.
“There are two sides to whether they [filters] are successful,” he said. “Does the filter block out all inappropriate sites? No, but students realize that there’s something there watching them.”
But even with the problems of filters blocking out too much or not enough, district officials “would rather err on the side of caution and fix the problem than have the site appear and traumatize some 5-year-old,” Mr. Amend added.
Meanwhile, some state legislatures hope simply to give their schools the clearest guidelines possible on an evolving Internet scene.
“The legislation simplifies everything,” said Rep. Mark Anderson, a GOP member of the Arizona House, referring to a bill he and his colleagues passed this year requiring schools to use filters. Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, signed the measure into law in April.
“It is simple to have a state policy so that parents with different school choices in Arizona don’t have to figure out which schools have it. They know that all schools do it,” Mr. Anderson added.
Mr. Anderson does not see the vote as the end of the legislature’s role in Internet use in schools.
“The Internet is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said. “I see new interest and questions posed on its use. We’ll see a lot of legislation addressing this issue.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1999 edition of Education Week as States Tackle Internet-Filter Rules for Schools