Edison High School students Richard McCoy and Duncan Wanless were doing research for a school project on campus when they realized the Huffington Post was blocked.
So they started testing out access to other online news sites to see what the Fresno Unified school district’s internet bans from students. They discovered that other left-leaning sites like Jezebel and Daily Kos were also blocked, but that politically conservative websites like Breitbart, Drudge Report and Infowars were allowed.
“I started noticing this imbalance of ideologies,” Wanless, a senior, said. “I thought it was weird that I would be able to read literal propaganda, but couldn’t read a liberal opinion.”
The students say they aren’t accusing Fresno Unified of being selective about websites based on political allegiances, but that now more than ever, young adults need access to national news.
“The more information, the better – as long as it’s not pornographic or something,” said McCoy, a senior and the student representative on the Fresno Unified school board. “What we’re looking for is fair and balanced. Consistency is the most important thing.”
It’s important for students to see different viewpoints.
Edison High School student Duncan Wanless
In an email last week, Wanless contacted Fresno Unified’s information technology department, asking that the Huffington Post be unblocked.
"The Huffington Post is a journalistic organization that publishes news. Its content is politically charged, but no more so than such conservative sites as Breitbart and Infowars, neither of which are blocked by FUSD,” he said in an email to the district.
The district replied that Huffington Post is “in the adult category” due to its content – and then notified the students that the two conservative websites mentioned had also been blocked.
But the students say that’s not the point.
“I’m obviously a liberal myself, and I have no problem with alt-right sites being unblocked,” Wanless said. “It’s important for students to see different viewpoints.”
Fresno Unified’s chief technology officer Kurt Madden said in a statement that the district relies on a Texas-based company, Lightspeed Systems, to provide website content filtering. According to Madden, school employees have access to both Breitbart and Huffington Post, but Lightspeed Systems classifies Brietbart as a news site and Huffington Post as an adult site, “meaning content, including advertising on the page, is not age-appropriate for K-12 students,” he said.
Fresno Unified consistently opens up sites as requested by teachers and students, but only if they are age-appropriate.
Fresno Unified chief technology officer Kurt Madden
“They filter out age-inappropriate advertising or content that includes violence, hate groups, pornography and other adult material. They do not filter content based on political stance,” Madden said in an email Tuesday. “It is common that filters block student access to sites based on adult targeted advertisement … Fresno Unified is committed to providing students safe access to the internet.”
Amy Bennett, vice president of marketing for Lightspeed Systems, said Wednesday that she’s heard these concerns before. For schools, sites like the Huffington Post are blocked because they are more likely to discuss “human sexuality” or feature inappropriate imagery, she said.
But that doesn’t mean that students at the more than 6,000 school districts across the country filtered by Lighstpeed can’t read the Huffington Post. Bennett says school districts still have local control over their internet options.
“We’re doing the categorization and organization, and then giving the schools the tools to determine which of those categories are allowed and blocked,” Bennet said. “It really comes down to the district, the community and the feelings across the board.”