Glitch or Censorship?

by Spencer Case
Connecticut school blames software for selective blocking of conservative sites.

Weeks after an apparent case of politically motivated Internet censorship at a Connecticut high school, officials are still blaming the incident on technical malfunctions — even though evidence suggests human culpability.

On May 27, shortly before his graduation, Andrew Lampart, an 18-year-old senior at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, Conn., set out to research gun control on a school computer in order to fulfill an assignment for a basic law course. He found that the website for the National Rifle Association was blocked, while websites supporting gun control remained accessible.

Over the next five days, Lampart spent more time on the web. He discovered that websites supportive of conservative causes and Christianity – including the Vatican web page — were blocked, while sites supportive of liberal causes and Islam remained accessible. The webpage for Republican party of Connecticut, for example, was blocked, but the page for the Democratic party of Connecticut was accessible.

Lampart provided screen shots of blocked pages to Hearst CT media group displaying the message, “This site has been blocked by the Region 14 Technology Department.”

Lampart addressed the issue with his father, David Lampart. “He came to me, and I could see he was kind of beating around the bush about something, you know?” David tells National Review Online. “So we sat down and talked, and he told me what was going on. And I say, ‘Did you really check into it?’ And he says, ‘Yeah,’ and starts showing me all the screen shots.”

David Lampart encouraged Andrew to work his way up through the school district’s chain of command. Armed with his pages of screen shots, Andrew spoke with the principal and was quickly passed on to the superintendent, Jody Goeler. Goeler seemed interested in the problem, but a week passed and the skewed blocking remained in place, Lampart says.

Andrew then wrote a statement for a June 16 Board of Education meeting. His father attended with him. “While he was reading [his statement] I was just watching the looks on the Board of Ed’s faces,” Dave Lampart says. “And I truly believe they were clueless of this, just by the looks on their faces.”

At the board meeting, the Lamparts came in contact with the local media. Their story then received attention from national media and on June 19, Andrew appeared on Fox News Insider.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a conservative-leaning Catholic advocacy group, then got wind of the issue. Long-serving Catholic League president Bill Donohue was incensed by the superintendent’s explanation that efforts to screen out “hate speech” had led unintentionally to the blocking of conservative and Christian sites.

“It is alleged that you support censoring students at Nonnewaug High School from accessing the Vatican’s website on the grounds that it promotes ‘hate speech,’” Donohue wrote in an e-mail to Goeler. “Would you please identify examples of ‘hate speech’ found on the Vatican’s website?”

The Dell corporation issued a statement that denied that its SonicWall firewall software had been set up to deliberately block websites of a particular perspective. Patrick Sweeney, who no serves as Executive Director, Security Product Management for Dell, wrote on his blog that the Connecticut censorship case “has become a runaway story.” He explained that many liberal sites are not rated and many conservative sites are classified as political advocacy. School administrators choose only which category of sites to block. By blocking all political/advocacy sites and allowing unrated sites, the school administrators could filter out half the political spectrum by accident.

However, Sweeney’s statement is unconvincing. First, there is no explanation as why only conservative sites would be rated. Second, it is possible to check the SonicWall ratings here and verify that the discrepancies that worried Andrew Lampart were not the result of different categories. The websites for the Republican and Democratic parties of Connecticut, and, are both categorized as political/advocacy. So are the sites for the Newtown Action Alliance and the National Rifle Association. and are both classified as religion. If the rankings of the sites were recently changed, then that should have solved the problem.

Finally, Sweeney’s blog post only attempts to show that there’s no censorship conspiracy at Dell. But few, if any, have alleged that there is. The question is whether there may have been a censorship conspiracy at Nonnewaug High School. Regardless of Dell’s site classification system, school administrators who wanted to implement censorship could have achieved it by blocking all sites in a given category and then selectively unblocking sites that support the favored given viewpoint.   

Because no one could seem to figure out why the sites were being selectively blocked, the school expanded the blockage on June 23. All websites unrated by Dell and all sites dealing with abortion, politics or religion – which constitute most of the Internet – will remain blocked until an even-handed filter policy can be devised.

“Pretty much everything is blocked now,” Andrew Lampart tells NRO. “So they actually took a step backwards. But from what I’ve heard, or from what I understand, it’s actually a smart thing to do.”

Last week, Andrew and David Lampart attended another Board of Education meeting. The board and the new acting superintendent, Frank Sippy, approved more than $9,000 to pay an outside consultant to review their firewall system and give recommendations. Sippy was “quick to jump on this,” David Lampart says.

“I take everything I hear with a grain of salt, but they seemed to genuinely want to fix this problem,” he tells NRO.

“I feel like all the board members wanted to cooperate and fix the issue,” Andrew agrees, but he says a solution is still likely to be a minimum of a month or two in the future. 

Donohue says inviting the Lamparts to aboard meeting was a positive step, but he called the board’s handling of the situation “a typical bureaucratic response” and said “somebody turned on that switch” to selectively block conservative sites.

“Now as far as I’m concerned, this is not satisfactory,” Donohue tells NRO. “It’s nice to know that the people who are the complainants are being involved and I’m glad that they’re going to take a look at the Internet policy. But, again, that suggests that there’s a technological problem. There’s not a technological problem, there’s a human problem.”  

Donohue says no one at either the state or local level has shown serious concern that the blocked sites might have resulted from deliberate human action, even after Dell made it clear that the kind of selective blocking that occurred could not happen by accident. Stefan Pryor, the state education commissioner, has yet to find anyone culpable for the selective blocking.

“These things are not flukes,” Donohue says. “This is by design, this is all calculated.”

The Lamparts are more willing than Donohue to give school officials the benefit of the doubt.

“I don’t know,” David Lampart said when asked if he believed the selective blocking to be intentional. “I’ve thought about this long and hard, and I don’t know. Again, I’m not really educated on how all this stuff works. It just seems awfully funny that this side of the spectrum’s open and that side’s not.”

“As of right now I feel like they’re going in the right direction,” Andrew Lampart said. “Whether they’re actually going to keep pursuing the problem and fix it is another thing.”

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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