Stand up against student censorship

In history class, some of the first things students are taught are their first amendment rights. Freedom of assembly, religion, petition, speech, and press. As US citizens, these rights are protected, however, as students, these rights can sometimes be overpowered by the rules put in place by school districts. Students often do not have the luxury of exercising their full first amendment rights because of content that is required to be censored from their work. There are many reasons for this, some legal and some that are linked to the decisions of specific school officials. Nonetheless, the nature of school administered censorship begs the question, why are students subject to different laws governing censorship than outlined in the constitution?

Screen shot of what happened when I tried to access a website about censorship in schools.

  Every school has a unique set of rules that determine what their students can be exposed to on school property. The most influential platform that schools have control over is undoubtedly the internet. The internet is an extremely valuable resource for students. Students at Darby are in a unique situation, because of our access to technology throughout our entire day. Censorship is more commonly encountered, because students are constantly using the internet on their school administered iPads, for class. As a student, one may be restricted from access to a website because of key words or content that sets off the protective servers set in place. Seeing the “Error” screen when trying to access a YouTube clip or a website for a science project on certain types of cancers can lead a student to wonder why certain sites are blocked while others are not. I spoke with Darby technology advisor Maria Stead, to help uncover why some of these parameters are set in place.

  “It’s for the students’ protection,” Stead immediately expressed, after being questioned, “Unfortunately, there is so much out there that is horrible, that we want to protect students from that.” While being clearly concerned about student safety, Stead also went on to say that is also a goal of the Darby staff to prepare student to use the web in a mature way. A task that seems less likely to be accomplished under heavy censoring of students.

   When considering what must be censored, among other criteria, one specification that websites must have is a rating that is appropriate for high school students. According to Stead, every website and app has a rating, which Darby administrators take into account when deciding to block them or not.

  “We have standard policies about app ratings. For example, we allow 4+, but we don’t allow apps that are 17+,” Stead explained. Because certain apps, such as YouTube or Google Chrome, are rated for viewers who are seventeen or older, student do not have access to them. This is a fairly unsurprising policy, because it is explicitly stated that these sites and apps are not to be viewed by children, however due to these rules, students are sometimes restricted from using valuable resources.

  Although Darby abides by explicitly expressed rules for some parts of its censoring, others are left up to the discretion of the faculty. Because some websites are not rated accurately, and may contain sensitive or inappropriate content, Darby staff has to constantly modify and change which sites are blocked or not. This, combined with the rapid increase in student exposure to technology, has made the task of protecting students from potentially harmful content difficult for Darby staff.

  “It’s really hard to kind of keep up with everything that’s out there. We’re constantly finding things, like, ‘oh that was safe, now it’s not safe,’” Stead went on to say. It is clear that Stead and the other Darby staff members are not slacking on their monitoring of accessible content to students. While it is the goal of Darby faculty to protect students, the question still remains, is the system of censorship doing more harm than good for Darby students? Even Stead acknowledged that there are some downfalls to the system of censorship that the school has adopted, because of its restrictions on websites that can potentially be helpful to students. Nonetheless, Stead stands by the system, and credits Darby for doing a good job of maintaining a healthy balance between strict and lax monitoring of content.

  While Darby faculty may have the students’ best interests at heart, the censoring of specific websites can have a negative impact on the learning of their students. Junior Nevaeh Mosley is one who has run into difficulty with the school’s strict policies on internet censorship. Mosley is currently enrolled in Psychology at Darby, which requires a fair amount of internet based research for class projects. Mosley has often run into problems while trying to access websites that contain certain keywords or sections with potentially inappropriate information while trying to complete her psychology work.

  “The internet censorship has made it difficult to do research on projects and papers done in school, especially in classes such as psychology, where many websites use adult terms to explain topics,” Mosley comments. Because of this, Mosley and other Darby students have difficulty finding reliable sources for research, and their overall project suffers.

  Mosley also mentions how the censoring can be an issue for students who only have access to the internet while at school. There are often assignments that require student to have access to restricted websites like YouTube, which cannot be completed in school. For students who do not have access to the internet at home it would be impossible to complete this work. Can this be considered fair to all students if some are not given the resources that they need to participate in class?

  While there are definitely positives to censoring students, especially for their safety and for legal reasons, there certainly can be room for improvement of the current school policy. If the school is truly concerned about helping to teach students to be mature internet users, then it is only fair that they are given an opportunity to prove that they can use adult sources in a mature way. However, I do believe that it is not the sole responsibility of school administrators to just hand over these privileges to students. I think that it is important that students learn to advocate for their rights and start conversations with their school administration to make the changes that they wish to see. In the real world, sometimes civil rights are infringed upon, so instead of demanding that things be changed, students should view this as an opportunity to prepare themselves for active citizenship in the future, by learning how to defend their own rights. Change can only occur if there is cooperation, so if there is truly going to be a movement, then students need to learn to work together with administrators to find the best options. After all, it is a school’s responsibility to prepare students for the future, but it is a student’s responsibility to learn how to be an individual, and sometimes that means having to stand up for what you believe is right and fair. 

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