As part of Banned Books Week, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has put together a program to raise awareness about Banned Websites. Although few websites engaging in legal acivity in the United States are literally banned , local practices in many school districts and public libraries effectively ban large segments of content. Wide-scale filtering of web content on library computers is a form of censorship and libraries must be careful to balance legal requirements with their mission to serve their communities.
Because access to Federal funding requires schools and libraries to adhere to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), many jurisdictions are confused about the level of filtering required. Students, teachers, and librarians are frustrated daily when they discover legitimate educational websites blocked by filtering software. Such filtering may also extend to the use of online social networking sites such as FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, and Blogger.
Filtering websites does the next generation of digital citizens a disservice. Students must develop skills to evaluate information from all types of sources in multiple formats, including the Internet. Relying solely on filters does not teach young citizens how to be savvy searchers or how to evaluate the accuracy of information. In order to make school more relevant to students and enhance their learning experiences, educators also need to be able to incorporate the social tools that students use every day into their coursework. Excessive filtering makes this impossible. For a great overview of how libraries can meet the requirements of CIPA and still serve their communitites, read the AASL publication Minors’ First Amendment Rights.
Another unfortunate side effect of aggressive filtering is the isolation of LGBTQ students. Online connections and information allow students to get quality information and helpful resources to understand their emerging sexual identities, regardless of orientation or geography. Many filters arbitrarily block LGBT content, even when it is not remotely sexual in nature. This is a distinct disservice to an already disenfranchised population. The ACLU has mounted the Don’t Filter Me project to help deal with this problem.
The Internet, like the world it connects, can be a scary, sometimes dangerous place. Artificially cordoning off vast swaths of its content “just in case” is not a good strategy, however. Narrowly defined filters (blocking obvious pornography, for example) together with effective instruction and active student engagement is a much better approach. Let’s remember to help the next generation learn to be a part of their world, not hide it from them.