Access denied


By Jenna Tuttle

Behind the veil of the internet, a quiet war for morality rages. The school librarian sees it as censorship. The information technology systems specialist sees it as protection. The it factor is an Internet filtering system called Lightspeed which blocks certain websites deemed inappropriate for school. Familiar to many students who use the school computers, the system’s mantra, “Access denied,” is a source of frustration to many. Yet, whether because of state law or because of a perceived educational responsibility, the filtering system has been in place since 2003.

Joel Hames, Senior Director of Instructional Technology, came to the district in time to see the system through. After the Children’s Internet Protection Act was put into action in 2003, the district opted to filter its Internet. Furthermore, in order to qualify for certain state funding, the district dug itself deeper into filtration. Hames said, “By law, schools and libraries who receive federal E-Rate funding (for us, between $50,000-$75,000 per year), must have in place an internet safety policy that includes a technology protection measure.”

“We are using a filtering program designed to reject web sites not suited for a school environment or for the age groups that attend Tam,” said information technology systems specialist Charlie Uhl. Seen rushing around campus fixing computers, Uhl is sometimes the go-to guy when teachers have problems with the filtering system. “At least once a week I receive a request from a teacher asking if a site can be blocked because they feel their students are spending time on pursuits other than educational,” he said. Unsuitable categories include “forums”, “hacking”, and “adult”.

“I think [filtering is] a good thing,” said senior Lauren Denison. “There are already so many distractions on the Internet. They should just block Facebook and other sites that are distracting and inappropriate. Those types of sites take up a lot of time and if they’re accepted at school then getting work done at the library would be impossible.” Denison, like the instructional technology staff, sees the Lightspeed system as filtering.

Staff and students alike sometimes have trouble with the filtering system. According to Uhl, some staff find that the system fails to block some inappropriate content. Yet librarian Mary Crowe worries that the filter blocks too much content when it comes to subjects like drug and sex education. Uhl agrees that the filter isn’t perfect, referencing that a search for information on breast cancer with the Lightspeed system can lead to nothing but blocked pages. Hames said, “It is an imperfect system. […] I get a dozen requests each week from staff members (teachers and support staff) to recategorize sites, and those usually go through with no problem.”

Senior Lee Lazarus has come face to face with the filtering system many times. “I can understand why they have [the system],” he said. “At the same time just because of how strict it is, sometimes you can’t access information that would be helpful for something school-related. It’s too general of a net to effectively block inappropriate content while still letting students access relevant information.”

However, Crowe sees more fundamental problems with the system. “I would prefer that there wasn’t a filter. I would like students to have free access to information in doing research for school projects. Every student is supposed to sign an Acceptable Use Policy during the registration process. That should deter most students from accessing inappropriate sites if we didn’t have a filter.” she said. Crowe, explaining why she felt this way, said, “[It’s] just because I want students to be able to access information freely. I prefer self-control over government control.”

Freshman Adiyna Bades agrees. Bates said, “I don’t think there should be filtering. I think it’s our choice: we’re supposed to be doing work and we’re on Facebook or something and we get a bad grade, or we do what we’re supposed to do.”

Junior Daron Austin views the system as impractical censorship. He said, “I think they should take [away the system away] because why block it? We have YouTube, so why can’t we have Facebook?”

Uhl responded to the label of censorship put upon the system. “Censorship is the suppression of speech or ideas that a particular body finds objectionable or inconvenient to their own ends,” he said. “In the Tamalpais School District we are using a filtering program designed to reject Web sites not suited for a school environment or for the age groups that attend Tam. […] I believe that those who are against this policy, by characterizing it as censorship and then coming out against it, are attempting to place themselves on some moral high ground that they really don’t occupy.”

Austin believes it is possible to remove the Lightspeed filtering system. Even with legal and financial barriers in the way, he thinks staff and students could work together to stop what he perceives as censorship. “People should talk about it and make a change,” he said.

In the end, the filtering system is required by law and the district needs it to get extra funding. There are ways around it, from requesting to block or unblock websites to accessing Facebook through a proxy. From censorship or protection, both sides of the argument seem to be trying to provide students with a quality education. The IT staff and librarians are getting heated, as are students. Whether bummed or relieved when that familiar “Access denied” flashes on screen to shield studious eyes from hardcore internet pornography, the filtering system is a work in progress and popularity.

Written by Jenna Tuttle. This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.