Thursday, May 17, 2012

For Whose Eyes?

I've been thinking about library self-censorship more than usual this week. It all started with the Cover That Shall Not Be Named (I simply cannot bear to give the weekly mag that issued it more attention) and my subsequent worries about its highly visible placement in the library.

I have yet to eliminate any periodical from display, and I'm not about to start now. This policy has caused more than one headache, though, since we are a K-12 school sharing one library. The dark side of providing open access to cover art is feeling that I am doing the boys no favors by featuring this idea of "working women." The light side is watching a group of first graders dissolve into gleeful giggles over this hilarious (and quite brilliant, in my opinion) cover of MAD. And there's my favorite magazine moment of all time when a lower school boy tried to help me out by letting me know about something "inappropriate" in the library. After informing me, he leaned over to his buddy and stage whispered, "it's a butt!"

School librarians may be tempted to censor materials all the time. Would anyone even have noticed if I had thrown away any of the magazines above? (Well, in this latest case, yes I imagine they would have.) And, when it comes to the web, it's easy enough to shift responsibility for filters onto the tech department, and just look the other way. But an opinion piece in this week's Education Week presents a compelling case to make good and sure you know exactly what's being filtered at your school, why, and by whom.

Joshua Block, of the American Civil Liberties Union, cites the 1982 Supreme Court case Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico ruling that public schools "cannot engage in viewpoint-based censorship of library books." Block points out that this ruling must apply to schools' treatment of Internet based information as well.

He writes:
We at the American Civil Liberties Union launched the "Don't Filter Me" campaign last year after receiving 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. In response to the campaign, reports flooded in from students across the country whose schools were using filtering software configured to block LGBT-supportive websites. When activated, the filter would block websites that expressed support for LGBT people and their legal rights, but allow access to websites that condemn homosexuality as immoral or oppose laws protecting LGBT people from bullying and discrimination.
Read the entire article on pages 24-25 of the May 16th print edition, or online here. (Subscription is necessary to read the full text, but if your school has a print subscription, you'll be able to create on online registration if you haven't already.)

Our tech department uses OpenDNS to filter "adult content," i.e., porn. I'm told that without that filter (which thankfully does not affect access to the types of LGBT sites Block mentions), we wouldn't be eligible for federal funding giving us a significant discount on Internet access. 

I am glad that the boys aren't watching porn in the library for reasons I probably don't have to explain (and reasons I wouldn't even be able to imagine but for real life being stranger than you-know-what), but I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable with some outside company deciding what is and is not "adult content." 

What are your school's policies toward filters? Do the filters go further than ours? Or, has your school chosen to forego funding in order to maintain completely open access?

Posted by Sarah Murphy

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