CENSORSHIP, THE INTERNET,
INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM, AND YOUTH

KAY E. VANDERGRIFT

Special Interest Page

Professional Guidelines

Children's Literature Page

 

As a society we want our young people to be literate, thoughtful, and caring human beings; but we also attempt to control what they read, think, and care about. We feel the need to "protect" children from dangerous or disturbing ideas and information. Of course, what is dangerous or disturbing to one person or segment of society may be exciting and innovative to others and perhaps just "the truth" to still others. This combination of multiplicity of values and concern for young people keeps censorship alive in school and public libraries.

Current concerns for literacy and critical thinking in education may actually increase incidents of censorship. Literacy assumes the power of texts and encourages exposure to competing ideas and beliefs. Critical thinking implies questioning, the analysis and evaluation of those beliefs to come to a personal judgment that empowers young people to take ownership of ideas and control of their own intellectual and moral lives.

New technologies are also causing an increase in incidents of censorship. The history of communications technologies, from the written word to modern electronic media, has been written with fear as critics contemplate the most dire consequences of each move that takes us farther from the personal one-on-one interaction with another human being in real time and space.

The internet and the world wide web are especially problematic. In the virtual world of these media, there is a potential for a kind of anonymous intimacy that can be very seductive in our often fragmented, disconnected lives. Young people, often very comfortable with and eager to explore these new media at the same time they are coping with the myriad problems of coming-of-age in our society, may be especially susceptible to such seduction. Like most things, this can be either good or bad.

I am encouraged and impressed by students who have exhausted traditional school and library resources who discover new and more current material on the internet and the web. At times they even participate in dialogues that move knowledge to new dimensions. I am even more impressed to see previously unmotivated students, seduced by information and ideas, discovering the power of their own intellects through electronic exchange. For me, the question becomes: Are we willing to give up this potential (if we could) to "protect" young people from "dangerous" encounters?

For the most part, I can make the analogy to other media and decide that, if we are not willing to eliminate books and libraries because they may contain "dangerous" ideas, why would we attempt to keep young people from the internet and the world wide web? Obviously, however, we do attempt to "protect" young people from much that is available in traditional print media, and various types of filtering software are now available to "protect" young people in the electronic world as well.

Ironically, some of the most powerful and positive learning sites (according to my value system, of course) are filtered out using such software. For example, CyberPatrol blocks access to the Ontario Religious Tolerance Site because it includes Wicca among its 62 religious and ethical systems. This site also includes information of abortion, cults, the death penalty, and satanism.

I fear that again concerned adults, often professional educators, are burying their own heads in the sand with the mistaken notion that, therefore, young people will not be exposed to these dangerous ideas. Such ostrich-like behavior focuses our attention on banning things, diverting our energies from the very real educational process of helping students sort out, select, and look critically at the information and the individuals they encounter in this virtual world. What is needed is not censorship but powerful and thoughtful dialogue focusing on inquiry and the development of personal judgment. Only then will tomorrow's adults be prepared to deal with the difficult decisions that will face them in the 21st century.

As concerned adults, we need to understand conflicts of intellectual freedom, not as something negative or practiced by those less enlightened than ourselves, but as a process in which we are all participants playing various roles based on age, family background, societal position, religious beliefs, and profession. As professional teachers and librarians, those who serve youth in school and public libraries have a pivotal part to play in this ongoing intellectual and moral drama. In order to best serve young people, we need consciously to consider both the basic underpinnings of intellectual freedom in our society and the requirements of the professionals roles we play. My personal interpretation of professional assumptions and our role in this drama follows, and I invite others to read, question, think, criticize, and share their own interpretations to help keep this drama alive. Without this ongoing dialogue and challenge to ideas and beliefs, there is no intellectual freedom.

Pivotal Assumptions

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the embodiment of personal rights for all citizens in the United States. We must acknowledge, however, that other nations may not ascribe to all the values represented in these documents.

Conflicts surrounding intellectual freedom are conflicts of values. There is no objective "right" or "wrong." Both sides have "the truth," that is, their version of the truth, on their side.

We live in a society in which many national or local legal systems impose particular, often very narrow, restrictions on access to information. Often our concerns with these legal restrictions detract attention from larger social, economic, and political restrictions.

A position as a teacher or librarian is not necessarily a license to lobby for issues or ideas-perhaps not even for intellectual freedom. Therefore, such professionals should think very carefully about accepting positions in communities which obviously hold values in conflict with their own.

Literature (in all media) is more concerned with the life of the imagination and of ideas than with the actualities of everyday life. Thus, a distinction must be drawn between literal and literary reality.

The education of the imagination is as important as the education of the intellect.

All of the above assumptions are value-laden and, therefore, subject to challenge from those who hold different values.

One could extract from these assumptions a set of guidelines to inform practice for teachers and librarians serving youth.

Since the world wide web is certainly one of the best ways to access a vast quantity of current information, I have provided links to a number of sites. In the true spirit of intellectual freedom, these sites represent different positions to issues relating to what I would call censorship. Obviously, however, the "I" of the selector remains, and there is inevitably the bias of my own values in the weight of what is included.

There is a complete text available of CHILD SAFETY ON THE INFORMATION HIGHWAY, a must read for those working with youth.

Teen Safety on the Information Highway A guide for Teens to use the Internet.

National Coalition Against Censorship The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), founded in 1974, is an alliance of over 40 national non-commercial organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups.

Teaching Tolerance  This is a site supported by the Southern Poverty Law Center and excellent in the treatment of tolerance with young people.

Archives: An Electronic Civil Libraries Library EFF supports freedom of expression, but does not support a presumptive right to violate federal, state or local law,which may include obscenity, indecency and/or pornography regulations and statutes.

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance This excellent site promotes understanding and tolerance of minority religions, exposes religious hatred and misinformation, and provides information on controversial topics.

The Freedom Forum The Freedom Forum is a nonpartisan, international foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.

American Civil Liberties Union Freedom Network The American Civil Liberties Union is the nation's foremost advocate of individual rights -- litigating, legislating, and educating the public on a broad array of issues affecting individual freedom in the United States.

Peacefire Peacefire was created in August 1996 to represent students' interests in the debate over freedom of speech on the Internet.

People for the American Way Founded in 1980 to monitor and counter the divisive agenda of the Religious Right political movement, People For the American Way is working to build a movement grounded in values that define what is best about our country.

Student Association for Freedom of Expression SAFE at MIT works to organize support for freedom of speech and other forms of freedom of expression.

The AMERICAN COMMUNICATION ASSOCIATION The ACA is the national professional organization of scholars, students, and practitioners in the field of communication studies. This site provides information about the ACA, a collection of materials on communication law and First Amendment issues, resources for teaching and research in communication studies, and an extensive reference resource page for scholars and activists.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation This is a non-profit civil liberties organization working in the public interest to protect privacy, free expression, and access to public resources and information online, as well as to promote responsibility in new media.

Feminists for Free Expression This is a group of diverse feminist women working to preserve the individual's right and responsibility to read, listen, view and produce materials of her choice, without the intervention of the state "for her own good."

Office of Intellectual Freedom/American Library Association The goal of the office is to educate librarians and the general public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries.

Families Against Internet Censorship FAIC is committed to opposing censorship on the Internet believing that parents are the people best suited to decide what their children should and should not see.

Teledemocracy Action News + Network The web site of the Global Democracy Movement. The GDM is primarily dedicated to the creative use of electronic media in all forms that directly empower citizens to have meaningful input into the political system.

Banned Books On-Line A special exhibit of books that have been the object of censorship or censorship attempts. Includes both adult and youth materials.

The Copyright Website This site seeks to encourage discourse and invite solutions to the myriad of copyright tangles that currently permeate the Web.

Supreme Court Brief Supreme Court Brief--IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES OCTOBER TERM, 1996 The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (the "CDA" or "Act")[1] criminalizes abroad range of constitutionally protected, but "indecent" or "patently offensive," communications on the Internet if they are sent or made "available" to minors.[2]

Citizens Internet Empowerment CoalitionThis site -- the home of the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition (CIEC), a broad group of Internet users, library groups, publishers, online service providers, and civil liberties groups -- contains the latest news and detailed background on the CDA.

The Center For Democracy and Technology This is a non-profit public interest organization based in Washington, DC. CDT's mission is to develop and advocate public policies that advance constitutional civil liberties and democratic values in new computer and communications technologies.

CyberLaw is an educational service focusing on legal issues concerning computer technology.

New Wine, Old Bottles: The Case of the Evanescent Copy This paper written by David G. Post in American Lawyer, May 1995 explores how copyright and other intellectual property rules apply in the age of the Internet.

Secret Censors by Wendy Kaminer Article appearing in the Boston Globe on March 13, 1997.

Acceptable Use Policies This site provides a detailed set of papers on Internet Policies and Procedures for the Bellingham Washington Public Schools.

PURCHASE OF BLOCKING SOFTWARE BY PUBLIC LIBRARIES IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL: A BRIEFING PAPER BY JONATHAN D. WALLACE, ESQ. This paper is intended for use by free speech advocates to oppose the installation of blocking software such as Cyberpatrol, Surfwatch, NetNanny or Cybersitter in public libraries.

Notes, Advice and Warnings Guidelines for young people on use of the internet.

Filter Players This is a linked page to content providers in the Censorship/Free Speech software business. If you go through these hyperlinked logo's you will get a comprehensive overview. Includes those who filter and those who watch.

Censorship This page includes definitions of important terms, background information on censorship in general and on censorship on the internet, news stories about the issue, case studies of censorship cases, and various opinions on the question.

Voters Telecommunications Watch The Voters Telecommunications Watch (VTW) was formed in New York City on April 11, 1994. It is an online organization that monitors proposed U.S. legislation dealing with telecommunications and the Internet in particular. VTW has been instrumental in opposing the Clipper Chip and related proposals.

PORNOGRAPHY, OBSCENITY, AND THE CASE FOR CENSORSHIP by Irving Kristol Basing his arguments on the moral relevance of art, Kristol says bluntly: "If you care for the quality of life in our American democracy, then you have to be for censorship."

Children Now Children Now was founded in 1988 at the urging of a wide variety of experts and organizations. Since the 1989 release of the innovative and effective Report Card on the well-being of California children, Children Now has been a leader in developing new strategies to move children higher on the nation's agenda. Seven years later, Children Now is recognized nationally for its policy expertise and up-to-date information on the status of children, as well as its leading work with the media to improve news coverage about children.

 

Created May 2, 1997 and is continuously revised
SCILS, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey