Online safety, or overprotection?: Exploring schools’ rights to filter Internet access vs. students’ rights to information

Mina Yuan
Mina Yuan, Wayzata High Schools
Mark Anfinson, an attorney and media law professor at the University of St. Thom
Mark Anfinson, an attorney and media law professor at the University of St. Thomas, talks with ThreeSixty journalist Mina Yuan in March in St. Paul.
Photo By: Mina Yuan
"(The filter is) very progressive, but it blocks way too much to be counted as useful." - Pranav Maddula, Wayzata sophomore

Chicken breast. Sex education.

Neither of these phrases are inherently harmful or offensive, yet both of these Internet search terms are blocked on school-issued iPads in the Wayzata Public Schools district.

The reason? Both of those phrases contain the fragments “breast” and “sex,” terms deemed inappropri­ate by the school district’s filtering software.

Some students argue that the filter causing these blocks on school technology violates their constitu­tional rights to receive and express information and limits their educa­tion. On the other hand, school administrators say the filter protects students from offensive material and emphasize the district’s right to control its own technology.

“The iPads are the property of the school district. Having the very limited scope of educational purpose … the district has the ability to set the parameters of use,” said Wade Phillips, director of technology at Wayzata. “If there’s a violation of these rules … there could be consequences.”

Controversy Goes Viral at Wayzata

In December, Wayzata junior Nathan Ringo posted an account of his pro­tests of the district’s iPad regulations, as well as the response of school administrators, on BoingBoing, a popular online magazine. The conflict began, according to Ringo, when he found a way to evade the school’s censorware his sophomore year, and it continued into his junior year when he read aloud the iPad contract to his classmates, concerned about the clause stating that students should have “no expectation of privacy.”

Ringo wrote that, in response, administrators accused him of cracking the firewall and revoked his Internet access, forcing him to rely on his personal laptop and Internet hotspot in class ever since.

“I can see how a ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ approach could seem attrac­tive to school administration,” Ringo said. “However, I disagree with the logic in this approach—free speech and freedom of the press are essen­tial to education.”

Yet, according to Phillips, who couldn’t speak directly about Ringo’s situation due to data privacy laws, even an administrator’s suspicion of a student hacking the district’s network, which is potentially harm­ful to the entire school, provides reason enough for administrators to examine an iPad’s contents or to take away Internet access.

“That’s our obligation as stew­ards of the school, to protect the privacy of the organization,” Phillips said. “Hacking and attacking on the network where they’re using it to try to infiltrate or access confidential, secure information … We’d have to go investigate that to the full mea­sure of our ability.”

Comments on Ringo’s article, which went viral internationally, ranged from agreeing with Ringo and comparing school limitations to prison regulations, to reminding him that the district’s filters are meant to protect rather than suffocate. Others approved of Ringo’s message, but not his method.

“He’s doing the right thing, but he’s going about it the wrong way,” said Pranav Maddula, a Wayzata sophomore who interns at Google. “He’s antagonizing the school, (and) he’s antagonizing the principal and the tech department. He’s getting the word out there, and he’s trying to cause change, but … the way he’s doing it, he’s not getting parents or other students to work with him.”

Ringo said his article, while unexpectedly widely discussed, did not achieve his original goal, which was a repeal or rewrite of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Under the CIPA, schools are allowed E-rate federal funding if they filter all potentially offensive images from student access. As a recipient of E-rate funding, Wayzata follows these requirements.

“There is no mention of blocking entire web pages in the CIPA,” Ringo said. “The current censorship at Wayzata blocks a lot more material than the ruling provides for.”

However, administrators say that even without E-rate funding, the district is morally obligated to filter any objectionable material, including web pages, to protect its students.

Safety vs. Overprotection

Administrators in no way pur­posefully keep useful material from students, according to Mike Dronen, director of technology at Minnetonka Public Schools. Instead, they strive to shelter students from content such as hate speech, pornog­raphy and gambling.

“I don’t think there’s really any stepping on constitutional rights by providing a web filter, but I think there could be an argument made that not providing a web filter could be some form of disservice to students,” Dronen said. “If a student could click on anything at anytime and have any form of content in a school environment where there could be a web filter, that definitely would not be good either.”

Maddula agreed with the need for a filter at Wayzata, but argued that some systems can be overprotective.

“It’s very progressive, but it blocks way too much to be counted as useful,” he said. “It’s almost like (administrators) are imposing guide­lines on what they think we should be doing with our time and with our technology instead of letting us do what’s actually useful.”

Maddula’s personal connection to the filter has only reinforced his opinions of the system. After spend­ing the last two years reviewing code as an intern for Google at its headquarters in California, Maddula used his programming experience and strong opinions to help Wayzata administrators review the filter system as iPads first arrived at the high school during the 2013-2014 school year.

“We talked a lot about how we could improve the experience,” Maddula said. “I did the initial block list, and I checked over the blocks to make sure nothing accidentally got blocked … The old (system) used to be just a list of websites that the school deemed not beneficial for learning, or not proper for school … Now they’re blocking a lot based on keywords in the URL or in the website. I suggest toning it down a bit.”

Phillips said problems such as excessive blocking arise because the filter works as a database with different categories, such as “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” Depending on its category, a website is either blocked or allowed on school technology.

“Filtering the Internet is a very complicated and difficult situation,” he said. “You can’t just categorize everything, and I think that’s one of the limitations of having a filter. It just doesn’t fall into a black-and-white scenario.”

While keywords may trigger the filter to categorize certain websites incorrectly, Phillips emphasized that it was not administrators’ goal or intent to do so, and that speaking to teachers and administrators to get such sites unblocked would be the best response for students.

At Blaine High School, where school computers are available to all students, the filtering system consists of little but blocking YouTube, said Kenna Gatzmer, a senior at Blaine. Even social media sites, such as Twitter, Vimeo and Tumblr are allowed.

Also, most Blaine students treat school computers respectfully, Gatzmer said, and she has never heard of any conflicts between students and administrators regarding the computers, aside from students’ dislike of the blocking of YouTube.

District’s Constitutional Rights vs. Students’ Rights

According to attorney and University of St. Thomas media law professor Mark Anfinson, schools have the right to filter, but “it’s a pretty dicey proposition for school administrations to censor or block students (from) accessing certain websites,” he said.

“It’s much less justifiable for them to do that than to prohibit a bad message that the student is expressing,” Anfinson said. “… How do you know as a school administrator (that) simply visiting a particular website, how can you know that’s going to have some terrible adverse effect on people? You can’t.”

The First Amendment rights of public high school students, while weaker than those of public college students, still hold considerable weight, Anfinson said. He noted that the Supreme Court has defined the First Amendment to include the right to receive information as well as to speak it, even for public high school students.

He also likened the iPad conflict at Wayzata to the debate over the censorship of books in school libraries in the late 1900s, in which school boards would ban literature for containing sexual references or curse words. According to Anfinson, nearly every time a book was banned, the school would get sued for violating the First Amendment—and it would lose.

As for schools’ argument that iPads are their own property, Anfinson pointed out that the book censorship debate serves as precedent.

“I don’t think the fact that it’s the school’s iPad allows them to curtail your First Amendment rights in any way, shape or form,” Anfinson said. “... To my knowledge, no court ever said that because they’re the school’s books, that gave them the stronger right to censor. That would never fly. … They can’t censor (iPads) without very strong justification, so I’d be skeptical about these blocks.”

However, the legal opinion on censorship and surveillance can depend hugely on varying circumstances in schools.

“First Amendment communication law is very much like a kaleidoscope,” said Anfinson. “A slight change in the facts you have to deal with changes the legal analysis.”

Opening up the Conversation

In some cases, certain sites are requested to be blocked by students. When Dronen worked at Stillwater Area Public Schools, Facebook was blocked on school technology because the student council was concerned students would be distracted by social media, he said.

“I think there’s always going to be some conversation back and forth, and I think as long as students can be having conversations with teachers or building or district leaders … everyone gets to move forward,” Dronen said. “There may be things that students don’t understand, and there are definitely things teachers and administrators don’t understand. To hear that student voice and listen to it can be really helpful.”

To encourage that conversation, Dronen suggested schools establish a student technology group, such as the Tech Mates, which are Minnetonka student groups that meet regularly with administrators at both the middle school and high school to discuss issues with school-issued iPads. Another opportunity for student-administrator communication lies in broadcasts such as “Beyond 140,” a video that airs at Minnetonka High School every month to address the characteristics of proper technology use and digital citizenship, Dronen said.

At Wayzata, there is no technological student group like Tech Mates, according to Phillips.

“That may be something we can improve on in the future,” Phillips said. “If there is further opportunity for dialogue, whether it’s organized or unorganized, from a student perspective, on what we can do to help you get what you need to succeed in your life, that would be our goal.”

While debate exists surrounding school filters and surveillance, both administrators and students agree that improved communication is the most likely solution.

“This is going to continue to percolate,” Anfinson said. “Nathan Ringo is not the only Nathan Ringo out there. What sounds to me like is needed and would be most valuable is a little better of an opportunity for students and administration to communicate.”