The issue of free speech in the digital age is being tested in Petaluma's public school, after district officials blocked a website criticizing its use of Wi-Fi.
The website in question, rfemf.com, chastises the district's use of wireless Internet in the classrooms, citing an increased exposure to radiation. It's on a short list of sites that are manually blocked on school computers by district staff after cyber-monitoring software weeds out pornographic, gaming and other banned sites.
While other websites that make similar claims about the potential harm of Wi-Fi are readily viewable on the school computers, the school district said that rfemf.com was blocked for sending one spam email directly to every teacher in the district.
"We received several complains from teachers and principals about a mass email that was sent," said Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Steve Bolman. "It referenced the website several times. We went through the typical protocol of looking into the complaints, making sure they were valid and then blocking the website. Had the website not sent out mass spam email, I may not have heard about it."
But Petaluma resident Paul McGavin, whose daughter attends elementary school in the Petaluma City Schools District, disagreed.
"Any complaints involving email has no bearing on web domain access," said McGavin. "Superintendent Bolman seems confused about that."
McGavin pointed out that if the district wanted to merely block email it considered spam, it could block a sender without blocking access to a website.
The creator of the banned website is not listed online. But several videos posted on the site show McGavin talking to the school district and board about the perceived dangers of wireless Internet exposure. Bolman said the district has had several encounters with McGavin on the subject.
"The website itself was nondescript," said Bolman. "We don't know for sure who runs it. But when we received multiple complaints from teachers and found out that everyone in the district had been spam emailed, we blocked the site's access. It doesn't happen very often because our Internet filters usually catch everything. But sometimes, things slip through and we block them."
Other blocked websites in the Petaluma district include several pornographic websites with obscure domain names and gaming websites that could distract students during school hours.
Bolman said that the decision to ban the site from school Internet access had nothing to do with its criticism of the district.
"We have taken a look at some of the arguments made on the website itself," said Bolman. "We concluded that the newer science isn't backing up the information on the site. But that isn't why we blocked it. It was merely an issue of blocking sites that span faculty."
McGavin said he worries about the arbitrary nature with which the district has chosen to ban a site.
"After sparring with Mr. Bolman over the last nine months, it has been my experience that he&#8230;does not carefully consider the consequences of his decisions," McGavin said. "Blocking access to rfemf.com is just another example in a long line of poor decisions."
(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at firstname.lastname@example.org)