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Web of Deceit? School District's Internet Filter Chooses Sides in Gun "Debate"

Friday, June 20, 2014

Most schools these days like to trumpet their support of “critical thinking.”  For at least one high school in Connecticut, however, that apparently means thinking that criticizes only one side of a contested issue.

In May, student Andrew Lampart of Nonnewaug High School was using the school’s internet service to gather information for an assigned debate on gun control, when he discovered a bias in the school’s filter.  The censorship software the school uses to determine school-inappropriate sites blocked access to NRA’s and other pro-gun groups’ websites but allowed access to the sites of Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety and other gun control groups.

Intrigued by the disparity, Lampart went on to test the filter’s bias by attempting to access sites on opposing sides of other politically contentious issues.  In several instances, Lampart found that websites for groups taking a position on one side of an issue were blocked, while corresponding sites for organizations taking the opposite position remained available.

Lampart brought the matter to the attention of Regional School District 14 Superintendent Jody Ian Goeler, who told him that the filter is necessary to block “hate speech.”  When the problems persisted, Lampart took his concerns before a meeting of the school district’s Board of Education.

On Thursday, the superintendent released a letter to the school community in an attempt to address the problem.  Goeler explained that the intention of the filter is to “protect minors from potentially harmful or inappropriate content.”  According the superintendent this includes, “pornography, illegal drugs, gambling, violence/hate/racism, cults/the occult, to name a few.”

Goeler went on to explain that websites are also blocked if they are categorized by the firewall as “political/advocacy group.”  However, the superintendent admitted, “many of the liberal sites accessible to the student fell into the ‘not rated’ category, which was unblocked while many of the conservative sites were in the ‘political/advocacy group’.”

Apparently, somewhere along this unfortunate chain of events, someone determined that information that supports a robust right to arms is “advocacy”--or worse, “hate speech”--while information that promotes restrictions on the right is merely “information.”  In other words, the responsible individuals don’t just believe the pro-gun side is on the wrong side of the debate, they refuse to recognize the debate even exists.  A more counterproductive approach to education is hard to imagine.

We don’t know if the district’s web filter blocks dictionary.com, but just in case, here’s how it defines “debate”:  “a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints” (emphasis added).  To be sure, if you search enough anti-gun websites, you will find some differences.  Some seek to raise funds through exploitive emotional appeals.  Others assault the reader with aggressive hyperbole and slanderous fear-mongering.  Still others use a mixture of arrogant condescension with elaborate misrepresentations of statistics and legal authority.  To say they have opposing viewpoints, however, is a stretch.  Ultimately, all embrace the concept of civilian disarmament.

While the filter may satisfy certain notions of political correctness, it does nothing to enhance the ability of students to gain a sophisticated and comprehensive view of the issues.  Whether or not this is a good thing depends on what the purpose of a public high school is considered to be.  If it’s a place for learning, the filter is counterproductive.  If it’s merely a place to be indoctrinated into a rigid social and political orthodoxy, the filter is indispensible.

For those fortunate enough to have unfettered access to information, we welcome you to this site.  While it’s true we believe one side of the debate has the better arguments, we also report on what the opposition has to say, usually with links to their materials.  Unlike some, we believe that the more readers are acquainted with the facts, the more likely they are to agree with our viewpoint.  Either way, we’re willing to let you make up your own mind.

So far, the school is blaming the “filtering service provider” for the “apparent inconsistencies.”  Whatever the case, we hope Goeler follows through on his assertion that “the school district is trying to determine the reason for the inconsistency and if the bias is pervasive enough to justify switching to another content filtering provider.”  In the meantime, the lopsided accessibility of information continues.  This leaves the district in a very precarious position regarding the First Amendment, a topic which we suggest they research, should their filter allow it.

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