A Jefferson County Public School student was banned from mentioning the name of his website in a Search Engine Optimization class offered through the online continuing education program. His URL: www.oldbastard.com. His context: he sells bastard files. NCAC sent the following letter to the school:
Julie Scoskie, Director
Adult and Continuing Education
Jefferson County Public Schools
546 S 1st Sreet
Louisville, KY 40202
Februrary 2, 2010
Dear Ms. Scoskie,
A former student in the adult continuing education program at Jefferson County Public School, Mr. Ele Grigsby, has brought it to our attention that he had to drop out of a class he signed up for as he was banned from mentioning the name of his website. As the class was on web search optimization tools, referring to the website was central to the educational experience. Yet a question he asked the facilitator was flagged for profanity and Mr. Grigsby was informed that in order for his post to be allowed, he would need to remove part of his URL: the word “bastard.” (Mr. Grigsby’s website is http://www.olbastard.com). We understand that the school subcontracts online continuing education classes to Ed2Go, a company that supplies the facilitators, online platform technology and tech support for classes like “Search Engine Optimization,” the class which Mr. Grigsby took. Nevertheless, the classes are offered through a public school, whose First Amendment responsibilities include the obligation not to censor content arbitrarily.
While we sympathize with the goal of discouraging gratuitous profanity or disruptive comments in the classroom, removing “bad” words mechanically with no consideration of context or meaning itself disrupts the educational process. In this case it has caused serious harm to the student, preventing him from learning in the course. It has also displayed the imprecision of the web filter. In fact, the sense in which “bastard” appears in Mr. Grigsby’s URL was that of “a rough, coarse cut file.” (Mr. Grigsby sells bastard files and has a website discussing them). The word “bastard” has several dictionary definitions, beside that of “child born out of wedlock,” including not only a “coarse cut file,” but definitions such as “false” (as in “The architecture was bastard Gothic”), abnormal or irregular shape or size (“bastard quartz”), or having the appearance of (“a bastard Michelangelo”).
The filtering mechanism used by Ed2Go would not only eliminate any mention of an acclaimed book like Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, it would censor a conversation about architecture or gemstones. This kind of internet filtering directly interferes with the goal of the educational process. To arbitrarily delete or block comments due to a word, while disregarding its meaning as used in context, interferes with students’ abilities to have open conversations within the context of the learning objectives set by the instructor. In this case, Mr. Grigsby was not able to complete his education with a class for which he paid.
The National Coalition Against Censorship urges the school to demand that educational subcontractors eliminate filters that automatically delete comments with profanity independent of context. Please feel free to call 212-807-6222 ex 19 if you wish to discuss this issue, or if we can be of further assistance.
Communications & Youth Programs
National Coalition Against Censorship