NCAC Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Internet Access In Schools
In an apparent effort to revisit some of the issues addressed by the Communications Decency Act, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional last summer, Senator John McCain is now preparing a legislative proposal to limit students’ access to "indecent" material on the Internet. McCain proposes to deny federal funding for Internet programming to schools that fail to install filters or other devices to limit access to such materials, including material protected by the First Amendment. Like its predecessor, the CDA, this proposal goes beyond what the First Amendment permits government to do.
From a purely practical perspective, filtering devices are unable to distinguish among various types of materials with sufficient precision to make this proposal work. Filters for violence would screen out news and history, works of fiction including classics such as the Iliad, the Bible, and Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, art work like Picasso’s Guernica and depictions of the Crucifixion. Filters for sexual content would screen out sex education materials, biology, anthropological accounts of cross-cultural sexual practices, and religious and historical information and images. Even if some kinds of material are not appropriate for young students, students in junior high school and high school have broader First Amendment rights to obtain legitimate educational materials.
The term "indecent" is notoriously vague, but is certainly inclusive of material that is protected by the First Amendment and has educational value for minors. The proposal to condition government funding on this vague standard would result in students in one school being denied access to educational material that students in another school can freely obtain.
This proposal will hinder, not help, teachers. An approach that is more consistent with both the Constitution and the goal of educating students and preparing them for life is to rely on the professional judgment of teachers and librarians, who have long been entrusted with the job of guiding students towards informative and appropriate educational materials and monitoring their research and educational progress.