West Virginia looking into Internet filters for schools
By The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. West Virginia public school students' access to Internet Web sites may soon be restricted. The state is looking into Internet filters.
It's part of an effort to comply with federal legislation passed late last year that mandates that access to pornographic sites, as well as to pages that promote violence, be blocked.
The Children's Internet Protection Act makes it legal to withhold federal dollars for technology programs in school systems that do not use the filtering devices. West Virginia relies heavily on federal grants.
Changes to the state Department of Education's policy governing child safety and acceptable use of the Internet are out for public comment until July 20.
The state Board of Education plans to vote on the issue in August, but the state director of instructional technology says the board has little choice but to approve the filters because the policy changes are required by law.
"There are two reasons for the changes in this policy," said Brenda Williams. "The first is because we want to protect our children and second is because we have to follow the rules."
The cost of the filters will vary and a timeline for installation hasn't been worked out yet, Williams said.
Many groups fear the law borders on censorship and hinders legitimate research.
Last year when then-Gov. Cecil Underwood tried to install the filters in public libraries, local civil rights groups spoke out, saying the devices violated free speech.
"I'm a little apprehensive about something that might limit what information students have access to," said Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers. Hale says her organization will monitor the situation.
Williams said the state would be using context filters rather than keyword filters. Keyword filters block out Web pages dealing with breast cancer, sexually transmitted diseases or teen pregnancy because of the words contained on the sites. "There are legitimate concerns about this being censorship beyond school age," Williams said.
"But the population we are dealing with are children, all under the age of 18, and it is our job to protect them. People who say this is censorship are not making that distinction."
Tom Lange, president of the West Virginia Education Association, called filters unnecessary because existing policies already forbid children from looking at pornographic sites.
On the national level, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association have filed lawsuits against the legislation on behalf of public libraries.
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Staffers say issue presents immediate dangers because of local, federal filtering mandates and worries over public voyeurism, obscenity.