Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and Republican state Sen. Rob Kane put aside election-year politics Monday morning to call on school boards to allow students Internet access to obtain information from all over the political spectrum.
The senators held a press conference in the Legislative Office Building in response to reports of a high school student from Woodbury who discovered that the Internet filter at Nonnewaug High School was blocking some conservative-leaning websites while allowing access to some liberal-leaning websites.
Murphy and Kane agreed that young people should have access to information necessary to encourage an open civic dialogue. They said it was a non-partisan issue.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” Kane, whose district includes Woodbury, said. “It’s a not a political issue, actually. It’s about access, it’s about freedoms, it’s about choice. The Internet access for our high school individuals and beyond should not be limited or biased in any way.”
Murphy recalled that he began to take an interest in government and political activity when he was a high school student. He said school districts risk discouraging students from civic engagement if they send a message that there is something wrong with exploring political speech.
“Frankly, school districts shouldn’t be blocking students’ access to political and advocacy websites. They should be encouraging students to gain access to this kind of information,” Murphy said. “It sends an enormous chilling message to students if . . . they’re blocked from going to political websites.”
Both agreed that some types of websites should be blocked on high school computers. Murphy said that the filter at the Woodbury school was set to prohibit access to websites categorized as political or having to do with advocacy. But it was also set to block other categories like pornography, weapons, drugs, gambling, abortion, games, religion, and humor.
Although it is appropriate to block pornagraphy from school computers, some of those categories like weapons or abortion could prevent young people from learning about issues that are often debated, they said.
“The topics that are the hottest are amongst the most important for students to be debating,” Murphy said.
The student, Andrew Lampart, was researching a paper on the Second Amendment and the gun control laws enacted in Connecticut and other states, Kane said. He was blocked from accessing the National Rifle Associations website but permitted to view pro-gun control websites. After conducting more searches, Lampart found he was allowed to access Planned Parenthood’s website but restricted from the Catholic Church’s site, Kane said.
In a June 20 statement, Regional School District 14’s school board leadership wrote that the inconsistencies were due to how the parameters of the filter software were set up. Chair John Chapman and Vice Chair Maryanne Van Aken wrote that they were confident the problem had been corrected.
According to the letter, the school board will be re-examining its Internet-filtering policies but has established an expedited process for Nonnewaug High School administrators to review and “unblock” appropriate websites raised by students or staff members.
The senators invited Kiernan Majerus-Collins, a young Democrat and Max Turgeon, young Republican, to speak at the press conference. Majerus-Collins, who recently graduated from William Hall High School in West Hartford, said school filters are sometimes so prohibitive they prevent student research on topics like the World War II, the civil rights movement, and breast cancer.
“The school districts should be looking to use the same kind of blocking software that maybe libraries use to prevent the particularly inappropriate and egregious sites from being accessed without really setting up roadblocks to regular access,” he said.