The danger in Utah schools — porn or censorship?

(Carolyn Thompson | AP) In this March 13, 2019, photo, a high school student uses a laptop in a school computer lab in Buffalo, N.Y.

Reports by conservative activists that Utah students can access pornography in their public schools have convinced state lawmakers that action is necessary — and one legislator is even calling for criminal prosecutions to form part of the crackdown.

Several speakers addressed a legislative panel on Wednesday to report that they or their children have been able to find objectionable content by searching through digital research databases available to public school students. And now, with COVID-19 forcing students to spend many more hours on devices for remote learning, the risk is of viewing harmful material is further heightened, a Utah lawmaker warned.

“I want to state unequivocally here, on the record: Obscene material harmful to minors exists in our Utah public schools today on a widespread basis, accessible through a variety of methods or channels for even our smallest, youngest children to access,” Rep. Travis Seegmiller said during a Judiciary Interim Committee meeting Wednesday. “I confirmed with my own eyes that this is true today."

Several people introduced by Seegmiller, R-St. George, shared their personal experiences about children finding explicit content on public school devices. Nicholeen Peck, president of the socially conservative Empowered Families Coalition, said parents across Utah have discovered pornography, promotion of illegal drugs and alcohol and material normalizing pedophilia on educational databases that public school students use when doing research.

“My computer is full, chock-full, of these images," Peck said, offering to share screenshots with lawmakers upon request.

Peter Bromberg, executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, said claims of pornography on these platforms are simply false and part of a campaign by conservative activists to censor information that they personally find distasteful. Much of what these advocates are claiming is pornographic actually doesn’t fit the legal definition of the term, he added.

The databases in question contain scholarly journal articles and mainstream media publications, Bromberg explained, and teachers use them to train students in proper research methods.

“This is a walled garden of safe, curated information, and it’s an invaluable tool for teachers,” Bromberg, who also co-chairs the Utah Library Association’s advocacy committee, said in a phone interview.

A spokesperson for EBSCO Information Services, one of the databases offered in Utah’s public schools, said a number of watchdog groups are making false claims that the company is adding porn to school databases and are “somehow in league with publishers to profit from having children click on links in articles.” Those claims are not true, spokesperson Kathleen McEvoy wrote in email.

“Without knowing where these watchdog groups are searching, it is difficult to clear up these allegations. However, we do know that we have previously addressed issues with customers that ensured that content meant for university-level research, for example, was not available to school databases users even if the content was available via a state contract,” McEvoy wrote. “In some of these cases, what these watchdog groups are showing is content that is not in the databases but rather in the article references or citations, but again, stemming from databases not intended for and not available to K12 students.”

EBSCO does not license pornographic content and is transparent about the publishers and periodicals included in databases, even putting title lists on the company website, she added.

The Utah Education Network, which provides these databases to public schools, has already undertaken an extensive review in light of complaints from Peck and others, Bromberg noted. The organization’s board members even decided in 2018 to temporarily block access to EBSCO Information Services as they examined claims that pornography was present on the platform.

However, meeting materials from 2018 show that staff members at the Utah Education Network combed the database using explicit search terms and keywords provided by parents who claimed they’d found inappropriate material. They weren’t able to replicate the searches that had allegedly returned the pornographic content, according to a staff report from the time.

They did find one article with a black-and-white line drawing of breasts and genitals, the report stated. EBSCO immediately filtered out the article upon request.

The Utah Educational Library Media Association demanded the reinstatement of EBSCO in the state’s classrooms, writing in submitted testimony that the decision to block it is “a clear example of infringing on the personal right of intellectual freedom.” Utah Education Network board voted to restore public school access to the database after the review was finished.

But Sen. Todd Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican who has worked with Peck on this issue, had a different understanding of the Utah Education Network’s decision two years ago, telling his colleagues Wednesday that the organization “threw up their hands” when problems with the database persisted despite their efforts.

Weiler was the sponsor of a much-publicized resolution in 2016 that declared pornography a “public health crisis,” and he has become the Legislature’s No. 1 anti-porn crusader, pushing at least 10 bills and resolutions in recent years.

Michelle Boulter, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, also spoke during the hearing, saying that one of her relatives was exposed to pornography at school and developed an addiction during his teen years. Boulter, who’s also co-founder of the group Gathering Families, which seeks to “sustain and defend the family as the fundamental unit of society,” said it’s wrong to assure parents that the school databases are innocuous.

“The reality is, these databases are not safe, and children are finding pornography,” she said. “And I hope that we will become proactive rather than being reactive.”

The judiciary committee voted Wednesday to explore a bill addressing concerns that school children can access explicit material.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a bill requiring distributors of pornography to affix or display a warning label to the material. Rep. Brady Brammer, a Pleasant Grove Republican who sponsored the measure, HB243 along with Weiler, suggested on Wednesday that legislators could go after the database companies under that new law.

On the other hand, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, argued the state should take a harsher approach by pursuing criminal prosecutions.

“Honestly, I think we oughta drop the fear of God into some of these database providers,” he said. “That if you’re going to put that kind of stuff out in front of our kids, you’re going to spend some prison time. And the state of Utah is going to pay for our filters by shutting your company down.”

Seegmiller and Brammer also said officials could go after the problem by looking at contracts with the database companies. More details about the proposed bill should be available later this year, Weiler said.

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