Web Censorship: Filtering of Social Networking Sites an Area of Contention Between Students and Faculty

Students experience disappointment when a website they want to use has been deemed inappropriate by the school and blocked. | Photo from www.sxc.hu

Students experience disappointment when a website they want to use has been deemed inappropriate by the school and blocked. | Photo from www.sxc.hu


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Isaac Stein ’12
Staff Writer

Students experience disappointment when a website they want to use has been deemed inappropriate by the school and blocked. | Photo from www.sxc.hu

Staples High School has always fostered an open environment for print materials to be read by students. According to Staples librarian Robin Stiles, no book has been censored in her five years of service.

“We celebrate the fact that [the Staples library] has many of the books that have been banned in other places. We even put up signs advertising Banned Books Week to the students every October,” she said.

Stiles also stresses that the removal of a book from the library is subtly different from the censorship of books distributed to students in English or similar academic classes.

“In an English class, every student has to read the book simultaneously. At the library, students choose which books to read by their own free will,” Stiles said.

Though the process for removing a book from the catalogues may be different from that in classes, the results have been the same.

Lis Comm, 6–12 English Department Coordinator, noted that, to her knowledge, no books have been removed from the Staples curriculum.

“In my 35 years at Staples, no book has ever been censored. A few parents have challenged books, but the committee that approves a potential challenge has never gone through with it,” Comm said.

Despite Staples’ libertarian attitude towards availability of print materials, many websites remain off-limits to students operating on the Staples network. These sites range from social networking sites such as Facebook to pornographic content.

Reinaldo Santana, the head technician of the Westport School District, is familiar with the inner workings of the Staples network’s web filtering systems.

“When [a student] enters a phrase on a major search engine, like Google, it must pass through a firewall owned and operated by the district. Then, if it passes through that firewall, it must pass an additional layer of security which includes a database of potential search words that are not permissible,” Santana said.

Santana stressed that a private company, not the Westport school district, operates the database. Additionally, Fortigate, Inc. built the hardware for the firewall, which is owned and operated by the Town of Westport.

According to Santana, many items on the master list of filtered sites are there because they contain keywords that are pornographic in nature. Many students, such as Anna Link ’12 agree with the school’s decision to censor pornographic materials.

“Blocking pornography just makes sense…considering that not only would it be awkward to see others viewing that type of material, but [pornography] is illegal to distribute to people under the age of 18. Since most of the students in Staples are under 18, it would be a legal and liability issue,” Link said.

Though many students and faculty agree that sexually explicit web material should be censored, opinions are more divided on the specific issue of whether or not the social networking sites such as Facebook should be blocked.

“I think it’s a good thing that Facebook is blocked,” social studies teacher Eric Mongirdas said. “Truthfully, it’s a powerful distraction from schoolwork—and a lot of students can’t be trusted with that kind of responsibility.”

Librarian Julia Roberts shares similar sentiments with Mongirdas, but also found the positive effects of blocking Facebook.

“Students come to the [Staples library] to study after school because we don’t have access to Facebook,” Roberts said. “They’re much more productive here than they might be at home.”

However, some students, such as Brandon Beller ’12, disagree with the censorship of social networking websites.

“It’s a clear–cut case of the system limiting freedom of information. [The students] should be allowed to access whatever they want so long it isn’t illegal or harming someone else,” Beller said.

However, some students have found a route around school barriers to Facebook- by using their cell phones.

So–called “smart phones,” such as the iPhone and Blackberry, can run on 3G wireless networks that are supplied by private companies, not the Staples High School network. In this instance, students who own 3G–capable phones may access many sites that are blocked on school computers.

According to social studies teacher Cathy Schager, the network’s limited range of blocked content makes censorship of Facebook strategically ineffective.

“Since Facebook is blocked, but other very similar sites like Twitter are not, it offers a massively false sense of security [for the school]. It’s really a double standard: if one social networking site is censored, then logically the others should be too. [The administrators] shouldn’t just pick-and-choose which sites to block within the category of social networking,” Schager said.

Despite students not being able to use Facebook at Staples, Roberts commends the network as being more open than those of most other high schools.

“[Staples] doesn’t receive federal funding for its Internet system. Schools that do get federal money have to obey federal guidelines. One of those rules is to block YouTube, and we don’t do that. That would be ridiculous,” Roberts said.

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