The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000


The Muzzle Awards, continued

by Dan Kennedy

Horror story elicits horrifying response

One day in early April, Shital Shah, an English teacher at Boston Latin Academy, gave her students an assignment: write a horror story. Charles Carithers, a junior, went about his task with imagination and enthusiasm, telling the tale of a 17-year-old athlete who cuts off his teacher's hand with a chain saw, picks it up, and slaps her with it. It was a horror story Shah had asked for, and it was a horror story Shah got. She might have awarded Carithers an A. Instead, she went to the headmaster, Maria Garcia-Aaronson, and told her she was terrified to the point that she could no longer abide having Carithers in her classroom.

Garcia-Aaronson, needless to say, should have pointed out to Shah the absurdity of punishing a student for carrying out his assignment too skillfully. She should have ordered her to go back to work. But no. Instead, Garcia-Aaronson pandered to her skittish employee and suspended Carithers for three days. "She [Shah] wanted us to write a vivid horror story. I assumed she wanted something real scary," Carithers told the Boston Globe. "I expected her to think it was sick but not to take it as a personal threat." Responded school-system spokeswoman Tracey Lynch: "The school believed the essay was a threat for a couple of reasons, including that the characteristics of the characters in the story resembled both the teacher and the student, that it was somewhat more personal. Also, the images in the story were extremely violent and extremely specific."

Post-Columbine, Carithers's suspension was hardly the only overreaction to perceived threats of student violence. There was the matter of the previously discussed Scottish Mafia, in Rhode Island. There was a special-needs student in Leominster who was expelled for drawing a picture in which his school was surrounded by bombs. There were three eighth-graders in Scituate who were suspended for posting a threatening Web page about one of their classmates. There were four eighth-grade boys in Quincy who were suspended for writing a sexually explicit takeoff of the Constitution that included the initials of three female classmates, a case written about by the Boston Phoenix. Carithers, though, may be unique in being suspended for carrying out an assignment too well.

As is usually the case in such situations, school officials backed down. In a written statement, Massachusetts ACLU executive director John Roberts charged that Carithers's suspension "violated the principles of free expression which the school should be jealously guarding." Carithers's mother appealed her son's suspension, and a hearing officer ruled in the student's favor.

Still, the unspoken message was clear. If a student says or writes something that is perceived as dangerous, he may end up fighting for his academic life. But if a teacher or administrator punishes a student for exercising his right of free expression, then she risks nothing worse than the slight embarrassment of having that punishment overturned.

Censoring anti-censorship activists

Cyber Patrol, the most popular of the so-called Internet filtering programs, is not without its legitimate uses. Designed to prevent Web surfers from accessing sites that contain pornography, violent images, hate speech, and other offensive material, it can be a sensible way to protect young children who go online. For the past several years, it has been installed on computers in the children's room of the Boston Public Library.

But as critics have always been quick to note, Cyber Patrol's filtering guidelines are so broad that they block legitimate sites too, such as those aimed at providing teenagers with information about pregnancy and sexuality. Across the country, library and school officials, afraid of tangling with religious-right activists, have installed Cyber Patrol or similar software on computers used by older students and even adults. Needless to say, such censorship is a serious abridgment of First Amendment rights, and, in the case of public libraries, a violation of open-access guidelines drafted by the American Library Association.

Thus, the programming feat of Canadian Matthew Skala and Swede Eddy L.O. Jansson could be described as a righteous hack. The two, who call themselves anti-censorship activists, wrote a program that reverse-engineered Cyber Patrol. They then posted it for free on the Web, allowing anyone who downloaded it to see how Cyber Patrol works, examine its list of 100,000 banned sites, and bypass its filtering mechanism.

That's not how US District Court judge Edward Harrington described it. Acting on a complaint brought by Cyber Patrol's corporate parent, Mattel, alleging that its copyright had been violated, Harrington issued an injunction that essentially outlawed Skala and Jansson's program, a ruling that led the two to settle with Mattel on onerous terms. Harrington also said he would go after "mirror sites" -- Web sites around the world that had posted Skala and Jansson's code.

According to the Boston Herald, Harrington's ruling stated in part: "It raises a most profound societal issue. Namely, who is to control the educational and intellectual nourishment of young children -- the parents or the purveyors of pornography and the merchants of death and violence."

Strong language indeed -- but entirely at odds with the free-speech concerns raised by his actions. Even the cautious editorial page of the Boston Globe criticized Harrington's urge to censor, noting, "The judge needs to decide whether criticism protected by the First Amendment includes the code or whether its publication is barred by copyright law. . . . The judge should let people publish what they want until he holds a trial on the copyright question. Injunctions should not be used to stifle speech unless absolutely necessary."

Actually, speech shouldn't be stifled at all unless it violates Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s "clear and present danger" test, which he defined as the equivalent of shouting a false warning of fire in a crowded theater. Skala and Jansson's programming feat presented a clear and present danger to nothing other than Mattel's bottom line.

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Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

1998 Muzzle Awards
1999 Muzzle Awards