What Do You Think?
Religion and the Internet
Article published Nov 8, 2005
Students say religion research hampered by school's Web filter
Dalai Lama, Buddhism sites among those blocked
By MARKESHIA RICKS
Nathan Robinson, 16, was pulling together the horoscopes for the student newspaper when he ran into an eye-opening problem: The school's Web filter blocked him from getting any information on astrology because it fell under the state's filter for cults and nonmainstream religions.
Students taking the World Religions course at Pine View School in Osprey last semester had similar problems while researching assignments on Kabbalah, the latest religion in the news for being embraced by Hollywood celebrities.
The filter system administered by state education officials is meant to protect students across the state from violent, racist or pornographic material.
But a student activist group believes the system is blurring the line between protecting students and restricting their right to know about and research all types of religion. Members of the Progressive Youth of America, a discussion and activist group at Pine View School and Booker and Sarasota high schools, have lobbied the School Board to open up access.
"We have access to sites on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but not a lot of the smaller religions, or the various cults and things," said Robinson, who is a member of the Pine View Progressive Club. "We find that the filter picks on some of these nontraditional religions are arbitrary."
Superintendent Gary Norris assured the students and the board that his staff is looking into the problems students encountered, but he made no promise to give them greater access.
Lana Jimenez-Ruiz, the instructional technology coach for Pine View, said that under the Children's Internet Protection Act, the state mandates that computers purchased by school districts have an approved filter system. The act, passed in 2000, requires federally funded schools and libraries to put measures in place to prevent access to Internet material deemed obscene, containing child pornography and considered harmful to minors.
The students vowed to continue their fight for more access. They have posted their concerns about the issue on their club Web site.
"Our goal is really simple," Robinson said. "We just want to see nontraditional religions removed as a category."
Melody Stromal, a sophomore at Pine View and a club member, said she has run into blocks looking for information about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism.
"It just isn't right," she said. "We should be able to look at information on whichever religion we want."
Pine View Principal Steve Largo said the use of Internet filter technology has been an evolving process and that he didn't realize the district's filter system lumped nontraditional religions and occult sites together. He said that because some schools offer world religion courses, a distinction should be made between the two.
"In this particular case, I can see the frustration of the students, but I also understand the need for filters," he said. "I just hope that what will result from this is a process that is more student- and customer-friendly."
Most Florida school districts use the state Department of Education's Websense filter. The Florida Information Resource Network, or FIRN, is the arm of the Florida Department of Education that manages the system.
The department has been using the filter since 2003. It screens Web pages based on vendor categories, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Deborah Higgins.
She said when the department switched to the Websense filter, it stuck closely to the categories used with the previous system.
The "religions, nontraditional religions, occult sites" category was one of many that the department and school district representatives were able to block through the new filter system, but Higgins said the system can misfire and block reputable sites.
She said students can appeal directly to FIRN or go through their school district to get access to a particular site.
"A school district can elect to operate their own site filter under the FIRN contract," she said. It can also chose to lift filters on entire blocks of Internet addresses.
Brad Schulte, the Sarasota County school district's program director for the Information Services Department, said students from other campuses have contacted his office about the filters and he has told them about the appeals process.
He said after a person encounters a blocked site message, they can fill out a form and send it to FIRN, explaining why the site shouldn't be blocked.
"We try to monitor it as much as we can," he said. "But the appeals program gives a student or teacher a direct route to have a site reviewed or reconsidered."
Schulte also pointed out that students with Internet access on their personal home computers are not affected by the school filter.
Nancy Pike, director of Sarasota County libraries, said finding the balance between protecting people and giving them access to as much information as possible is tricky, but especially for schools.
Pike said public libraries have less restrictions because they have to provide information to people of all ages while filtering out materials the law defines as illegal.
Schools "have to protect students as their parents would," she said.
Librarians Demonstrate Silently Against Patriot Act
October 3, 2005
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Librarians wore gags emblazoned NSL (for "National Security Letter") at a demonstration on September 28 to urge the Justice Department to lift a gag order on "John Doe," the unidentified Connecticut library client of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has challenged the act in court. While a federal court judge ruled in favor of "John Doe," the decision was immediately appealed. "America's librarians urge Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales to let John Doe speak," said Michael Gorman, president of the ALA.
The suit challenges the National Security Letter provision of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the FBI to demand a range of records without court approval, including library records and the identity of people who have used library computers. Among the speakers: Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Bernard Sanders (I-VT). The New York Times reported that, while the Connecticut library client was officially not named, court records suggest that it is the consortium Library Connection in Windsor, CT.