Locking down information in a time of abundance

In Charlotte, in 1968 and 1969, a couple of high school students and their buddies created a newspaper using a donated mimeograph machine from a church, in a garage.

In “The Inquisition,” they wrote about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and poetry, and the powers that existed tried to shut them down using zoning laws.

The students found an ACLU lawyer who agreed to take their case, and they won.

The newspaper’s poet, Paul Jones, went on to become director of ibiblio, a large contributor-run digital library. Today, he teaches students at the University of North Carolina about society, library science and journalism. (Paul would be quick to say he was only the newspaper’s poet, not one of the editors, says researcher Suzanne Sink.)

The harder that institutions try to suppress, the more people find a way to communicate.

So when I read a call to arms for high-school journalism education by Esther Wojcicki, director of Palo Alto [Calif.] High School’s journalism program, this line blew me away:

“Far too many of our future journalists, citizens and leaders unquestioningly accept that school administrators — government officials — should have the authority to dictate what they read, write and talk about. “

She was quoting the Student Press Law Center, talking about the 20-year-old Hazelwood court decision, which allows high schools in some cases to censor student publications.

But the more I thought about my own 20-year-old daughter and others who grew up in those 20 years, I came to a different conclusion. This court ruling and institutional climate of the past 20 years have instead led to an erosion of respect for those institutions that try to stifle free discussion and speech.

Your place of business locks down social media? No problem, use your own phone and perhaps a pseudonym. Your high school locks down computers or confiscates phones? Just hack your way around the firewall or be craftier about the phone use. Even your mom says the phone is OK.

This emerging generation is the one that took cell phones to school because parents wanted to be able to reach them after 9/11. Some of their teachers refused to turn off class TVs that day despite what the main office said. Knowledge and communication bring power, safety and self-preservation.

The idea that communication has been locked down and is becoming more controlled might seem bizarre given the daily overload of information we face. But consider:

  • Mecklenburg County officials in February considered taking down the ability to search online by name for property owners;
  • Records of real-time 911 calls for service have been removed from the redesigned Charlotte Mecklenburg government website;
  • Some large private businesses, especially in a bank town like Charlotte, lock down employee access to social media, and sports stars from Denny Hamlin in NASCAR to Marcus Austin at the University of North Carolina have faced consequences because of their words on social media. In most individual cases, education would serve better than blanket policies.

Still, we’re social creatures and technical problem solvers. Some of our most established institutions have become the technical problems. Institutional obstacles to free communication have taught people to disrespect the institutions and that it’s OK to seek ways around barriers and institutions that impose them. Not all of us know the ways around the barriers, but we reward those who do.

Wojcicki’s words are strong when she calls for high-school journalism education:

“Sometimes it’s good to just remind ourselves that there were people who risked their lives and gave up their homes to come here seeking the freedom to pursue the American dream, which includes freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

and…

“Most schools do not allow their students access to an uncensored Web; this is a trait we usually ascribe to China and rarely acknowledge about ourselves.”

Clearly, with growing technical tools for social interaction, institutions haven’t stopped us from talking to teach each other, and the ease and speed of that communication in many cases have increased. Some big names have made mistakes in how they talked broadly to the world, and institutions have reacted.

Along the way, some of those institutions have damaged themselves by going too far to try to lock down information and communication. Individuals learn to disrespect the institutions that prevent them from finding valuable information and being the social creatures that they are. That’s a strong call for more education, more information and more open and engaged institutions, from government to media.

Wojcicki wrote:

“That drive for independence and freedom is alive and well in our teenagers today; if we enable it in our schools, students will respond.”

As, I suspect, will we all.

Acknowledgements: Researcher Suzanne Sink is the expert on “The Inquisition” and its role in Charlotte. Thanks to her for providing background and clarifications. Revised post on Sept. 6 because of her thoughts.

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One response to “Locking down information in a time of abundance

  1. Pingback: @UnderOak tells it like it is « HEROES RISING

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