An unlikely fight over obscenity 

Internet filters

A Ravalli County legislator has sponsored a bill requiring Internet filters on all school computers to restrict student access to obscene material on the web. Rep. Allan Walters, a three-term Republican legislator representing the Hamilton area, has sponsored House Bill 262, which would require all Montana schools to filter out obscene material on the Internet.

A similar federal law already exists but is being challenged on constitutional grounds by three free-speech groups. The Montana School Board Association (MSBA) also plans to oppose the state legislation.

MSBA executive director Lance Melton says the association will oppose the bill, not on constitutional grounds, as in the federal case, but for the usual Montana reason—lack of money; the bill doesn’t provide the schools with funding.

In addition, the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, signed into law by former President Clinton last month, renders the state legislation “superfluous,” Melton says.

About three-quarters of Montana school districts already have filtering software of some type, and every school district with Internet hook-ups has an acceptable use policy, according to Melton. The schools without Internet filters simply don’t have the money to purchase the software or hire the technicians to install it, he adds.

Melton calls the bill an unfunded mandate, which in Montana may not be passed on to public schools. The bill also usurps the authority of locally elected school boards.

“Why tell us we must do this?” he says. “We’ve already got elected representatives [on school boards].”

Mona McCarty is the technical coordinator for the Hamilton School District, which has Internet filters on its computers. Though McCarty believes that schools have a duty to protect students from obscene material on the Internet, and that filters are a good tool, they are less than perfect. “They might let some bad stuff seep through, too,” she says.

But filters aren’t the only tool teachers use to keep kids from accessing obscene websites, McCarty notes. “We definitely educate our kids that there are inappropriate things out there,” she says. Students also must have parental permission to access the Internet at school.

Though McCarty agrees with the need for filters, she, like Melton, thinks the Legislature should fund the bill. “They can mandate all this stuff, but we need the funding.”

Walters counters McCarty and Melton, saying the 1997 Legislature gave the state’s public schools $12.5 million for technology, some of which could have been spent on Internet filters. Funding for any schools lacking the filters will be minimal, he says, and could probably be found in the state’s budget.

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