From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 14|No 3|February|2005
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Big Brother Comes to School:
Telling Teachers What to Read and What to Believe

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2005, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

In some school districts, sites are blocked and filtered if they address important political issues like the federal education law, NCLB.

These filters are not always even handed in their blocking of sites and end up steering both adults and children to read a particular political point of view.

It is fundamentally undemocratic and probably illegal for a school district to determine which political points of view are acceptable and which are not.

© Jamie McKenzie

This photograph of General Grant is meant to portray a "high horse" as in "get off your high horse" as when someone is preaching, imposing their beliefs on others or taking away (other people's) liberties.

When one group or person (a technician, a technology director, a superintendent or a Board of Education) decides what others should read and think, they are exceeding their proper role and probably violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While quick to defend their actions in terms of values, they show a profound misunderstanding of the law, the Constitution and basic American beliefs about freedom of speech and freedom of access to information. They assume their values are the "correct" values and should prevail.

Heavy handed control of information is associated with fascism and dictatorship. At a time when the United States government is urging the spread of freedom to new geographical areas, it would be fitting to practice freedom here at home.

No Teacher Allowed to Read

The practice of unfairly blocking teachers (and students) from reading politically oriented materials came to this author's attention when a teacher from a school district in California e-mailed complaining about her district's filtering of an FNO Press journal and Web site criticizing NCLB (

The district and its filtering company allowed teachers to access and read the highly partisan marketing efforts and advocacy on behalf of NCLB issued by the outgoing Secretary of Education but blocked the reading of materials critical of NCLB. Even though the Department had been caught paying a journalist to promote its agendas and even though the Department has a very large PR budget advocating NCLB to parents, teachers and others through Web sites and press releases, the district and the filtering company, SonicWALL left the Department's blatant advocacy unfettered while blocking criticism of "No Child Left."

This unbalanced filtering is damaging. It is wrong when school districts and their corporate allies take sides on political issues. If the filtering company allows political advocacy from government Web sites selling the agendas on education, Social Security, war, Arctic drilling and budget deficits while filtering opponents of these policies, they are violating sacred American traditions of fair play and freedom. They are taking sides. They are subtly engaging in mind control. They are indirectly endorsing certain policies while silencing opposing points of view.

When the superintendent of this district was contacted and asked to stop filtering the material, he never replied. Instead, he delegated the problem to a middle school principal who first denied that it was happening. The screen shot below proves that it was happening on the very day the principal denied it. When asked to stop filtering information critical of NCLB, the district administrators lapsed into silence. As this issue goes to print, they have not paid the editor the courtesy of a response other than the original (false) denial and a one line message from the principal (see below).

Denying Responsibility

What makes this episode in censorship especially pernicious is the refusal of each party to take responsibility for the censorship.

When contacted and asked to stop filtering "No Child Left," the top PR person for SonicWALL issued the following statement:

Dear Mr McKenzie

I have been in contact with our content filtering area, and they have
given me the following response for you.

"In fact, your comments do not accurately reflect the services that we
provide. Our content filtering service only categorizes web sites.
Individual users, such as school districts, then make independent
decisions concerning whether such content should be blocked or not. In
your message, you indicate that teachers in some districts are not able
to read your articles. We recommend that you contact those school
districts directly to have them reconsider their blocking policy to
enable your materials to be read."

I hope you will find this helpful.

Best regards

Mary McEvoy

This response from SonicWALL is a dodge. SonicWALL invents the list of blocked sites. They decide who gets filtered. They do not explain their criteria and do not reveal which sites are blocked. Most clients could not thoughtfully select which sites to block if SonicWALL does not tell them. The default setting for blocking sites is determined by the company and the school district electing this filter is complicit.

The company puts responsibility on the school district while the school district subscribes to a service that blocks sites the school district may not have thought about in any sense.

When this editor sent the above screen shot to the principal as evidence that his denial was wrong, instead of an apology, the principal fired back a one liner . . .

From: Anonymous School Principal
Date: February 3, 2005 6:15:58 AM GMT+08:00
Subject: Re: Continued Filtering

Filtered for political reasons??? Where do you get off saying that!!

The screen shot says very clearly, "Reason for restriction . . .
Forbidden Category: Political/Advocacy Groups."

Why Censorship?

How does this filtering qualify as censorship?

The filtering is unfair and unbalanced. The filtering company and its client school district have blocked teachers from reading articles critical of the federal educational law called (inaccurately) "No Child Left Behind" by blocking access to a Web site critical of the law, while allowing access to sites promoting the policy (advocacy) such as proponents in the Department of Ed.

If a reader does a Google search for "No Child Left Behind," the list is dominated by proponents. The filtered site comes in third. It is strongly and openly opposed to NCLB, critical of its impact on schools and proud of its opposition to an ill-considered faulty policy. Teachers in some districts are not allowed to read the criticism until they are home. When they are at work, they must read the party line.

Teachers need to read more than one side, but if they work in districts that have chosen the political advocacy filter from SonicWALL, they may only reach Web sites that are enthusiastic supporters of NCLB.

The filtering company and its client school district allow teachers to read every one of the first 30 sites except for the one site that is clearly opposed to NCLB and an article from Mother Jones, "No Child Left Unrecruited." All the "allowed" sites except for the NEA either endorse NCLB or are neutral.

This kind of filtering is censorship. It is a subtle but dangerous attempt at mind control.

What Freedom?

Should teachers and students be able to visit Web sites that argue for social and political policies of various kinds from several points of view?

It would seem to be an unalienable right. Citizenship involves weighing opposing viewpoints. It is American to brook dissent.

Should a school district block teachers and students from reading certain political and social points of view while allowing access only to opposing points of view?

It would seem to be a gross violation of fundamental rights. If blocking political advocacy sites, at least the district should be fair and even-handed.

This photograph shows Constitution Hall where the Bill of Rights was forged and agreed upon long ago.

The photograph was shot on February 25, 2005 from the room where the Liberty Bell is kept safe.

The curtains were drawn against a bright sun, creating a filter of sorts preventing us from seeing the Hall clearly, obscuring the place where Americans first agreed upon fundamental rights in the Declaration and then in the Constitution.

Infiltrating the Public Schools

While the filtering companies claim that they are even-handed in their filtering, most of them refuse to reveal either their lists of blocked sites or the criteria they use for filtering. This makes it difficult to evaluate the truth of their claim. It also makes it difficult for a school district to make an informed decision if they select one of the political filters.

What are they buying? It is impossible to tell. Yet the company claims each district is making an informed choice of which sites to filter.

How can that be if they are not provided with a list of the sites blocked?

When looking at sites considering government policies, if government sites promoting and advocating those policies are left unfettered while opposing sites are usually filtered under a political advocacy claim, a company is effectively endorsing one set of policies while rejecting another. The definition of advocacy is then tilted to favor the government and party in power over those who have contrasting points of view.

What can you do?

1. Make sure such filters are not operating in your school district.

2. Ask your administration and Board of Education to take a stand against such political filtering.

3. Contact SonicWall and let them know how you feel about their filtering. E-mail their PR person, Mary McEvoy at

4. Remain vigilant as new technologies arrive and offer services that may undermine fundamental liberties.

Back to February Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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