Intellectual Freedom: Roadkill on the Information Superhighway?

Issues for Libraries and Schools

Presented at ALA Annual Conference - June, 1995

"Sex on the Info Highway"

This headline from a weekly newsmagazine is typical of articles we have all seen in the popular media recently. Articles which focus on the sensational sell magazines, but they also promote misconceptions about the Internet in the minds of parents and the public.

In today's political climate, it is not unrealistic to predict a movement toward censorship cloaked as "protection" of vulnerable young minds. The recent announcement of software products like "Surf Watch" and "Cyber Sitter" typify this trend. In fact, it reminds me of the hysteria which characterized the McCarthy era. (And what does recent history tell us about the horrible specter of communism?)

A number of metaphors have been used to describe the Internet in an attempt to make it accessible and comprehensible to people who have no personal experience with it. And it may be that through metaphor - coupled with historical precedent - we can find some answers to our dilemmas. I heard a librarian describe our role this way: "If the Internet is a highway, then we want to be the driving instructors and the filling station attendants. But we emphatically do not want to be the highway patrol, snow plow operators, or litter collectors."

Historically, schools have developed policies and procedures based on the doctrine of in loco parentis. While children are in their care, they act in stead of the parents to insure their children's safety. Constitutional freedoms may be justifiably abridged in their application in schools. For example, lockers can be searched if there is the threat that they contain weapons or other illegal substances. We consult with parents before we take their children off school grounds; we ask them to sign a field trip permission form.

So, one approach to using the Internet in schools is to treat it as a "virtual field trip" - to cyberspace! We inform the parents of the potential dangers, and indemnify ourselves by asking them to sign a permission form.

Although school boards and network service providers are reasonably concerned about liability issues in the current atmosphere of litigiousness, most educators are more interested in the teaching opportunity afforded by the introduction of Internet into the schools - an opportunity which transcends content-specific resources and effective search strategies. Most schools treat Internet access as a revocable privilege, and have developed acceptable use policies with which students must agree to comply. Discussing the terms of the acceptable use policies with students allows us to introduce positive concepts like ethics, responsibility and copyright.

Common Elements of Acceptable Use Policies

Acceptable use policies commonly include the following responsibilities:

Users agree to be:

Responsible: They will protect their individual accounts by declining to share their passwords. They accept responsibility for the content of the messages they post - in their real names - and recognize that access is a revocable privilege.

Ethical: They do not interfere with others' work, or with the performance of the network, by attempting to "hack" passwords, gain entry to closed areas of the network, or by knowingly or inadvertently introducing computer viruses.

Efficient: They recognize that the network is a shared resource, respect time limits, and learn to use tools which allow them to work offline.

Polite: They learn that the network is a social community with accepted standards of behavior - also known as "netiquette". They are expected to use appropriate language and to avoid launching personal attacks on people whose opinions differ from theirs.

Legal: They respect copyright, and avoid using network resources to promote illegal activities.

Schools also typically have codes of conduct which govern student behavior at school and on field trips. In my school district, these rules are referred to as "Student Rights and Responsibilities". The CoVis Project's "Network Use Policy" incorporates users' rights in addition to the responsibilities listed in the preceding summary. Students and teachers have the right to:

Privacy in their electronic communications. Philosophically, we tend to disagree with Prodigy's policy of screening all messages. Most of us prefer to stress the students' opportunity to develop maturity by taking responsibility for the content of their postings.

Equal access to as many network services as the user's technology allows.

Safety from unwanted solicitations or communications. We strongly discourage students from posting their home addresses or phone numbers.

Intellectual freedom of personal expression.

When confronting issues pertaining to using the Internet in schools, we can use the metaphor of a "virtual field trip" to guide our thinking about student safety and parental permission. We devise acceptable use policies which explicitly detail students' rights and responsibilities, and use them as a teaching tool to guide discussions of personal ethics in an electronic environment.

Library "Bill of Rights" I am proud to note that librarians have been especially proactive in exploring intellectual freedom issues raised by the rapidly expanding global electronic village. The draft interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, "Access to Electronic Information, Services and Networks", is solidly grounded in its predecessors, as this chart depicts:

The Library Bill of Rights was first adopted by the American Library Association in 1948. Imagine the political climate at the beginning of the Cold War - and remember the hysteria of the McCarthy era - as you hear our professional organization assert that:

"libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues" - and -

"libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment" - and -

"libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas."

The draft interpretation "Access to Electronic Information" which was released in March of this year and revised at ALA affirms that "librarians address intellectual freedom from a strong ethical base and an abiding commitment to the preservation of the individual's rights" as expressed in the Library Bill of Rights, and asserts that, "The constant emergence and change of issues arising from the still-developing technology of computer-mediated information generation, distribution, and retrieval needs to be approached by librarians from a context of established policy..."

It is not difficult for us to conclude that electronic information is simply information in another format, but we may need to help our patrons, our School Boards, and our communities to see it in that context. Remember what they've been reading about the Internet in the popular press! This document explicitly makes the connections, and can help guide our own exploration of the issues.

The "rights of users" are clearly related to previous interpretations pertaining to freedom of access, privacy and confidentiality, and the rights of minors. Libraries are widely regarded as the public repository of information, and, as such, can confidently assert that "electronic information, services, and networks provided directly or indirectly by the library should be readily, equally and equitably accessible to all library users." We have an implicit obligation to avoid widening the gap between information "haves" and "have-nots" which results from disparities of economic opportunity and infrastructure.

"Questionnable" content is explicitly addressed: providing access to electronic information cannot be equated with collection development and selection policies. "It is, therefore, left to each user to determine what is appropriate. Parents who are concerned about their children's use of electronic resources should provide guidance to their own children" - a principle which has been previously articulated in interpretations pertaining to nonprint materials and the school library media program.

The draft concludes, "By applying traditional tenets of intellectual freedom to new media, librarians provide vision and leadership in an arena where it is . . . clearly needed."

In both schools and libraries, we have the opportunity to redefine our role as educators and information specialists who provide our students and patrons with bold new ways to acquire knowledge.


Fishman, Barry and Roy D. Pea. "The Internetworked School: A Policy for the Future." Technos: Quarterly of Education and Technology. 3 (1), 1994.

Manning, Bill and Don Perkins. "Ways to Define User Expectations." IETF School Networking Group, Internet RFC 1746. December, 1994.


Acceptable Use Policies



Technology Planning: Acceptable Use Policies

American Library Association: Library Bill of Rights and Interpretations


Janet Murray is the Library/Media Specialist at Wilson High School in Portland. In addition to her presentation at ALA, she spoke at the international Internet Society Conference on professional staff development: "Training is for Dogs: Teachers Teach, Teachers Learn."