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DeVos Blocks Citizen.org on Education Department’s Networks and Wi-Fi

Public Citizen News / May-June 2019

By David Rosen

This article appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

The U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos got caught blocking visitors and employees from accessing Public Citizen’s website through the department’s guest Wi-Fi and internal networks. Now Public Citizen is suing to end the practice.

Users attempting to access citizen.org though the department’s wireless networks receive a message saying access is “in violation of your Internet usage policy” and noting “Category: Advocacy Organization.”

So on April 9, Public Citizen, joined by board member David Halperin, who regularly attends meetings at the department and uses its guest Wi-Fi network, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit alleges that blocking the website violates both the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Although it is very surprising that a federal agency would act to block access in this way, it is not surprising that DeVos and the department are unhappy with the content of Public Citizen’s website.

Public Citizen’s website includes details about its successful representation of student borrowers who sued the department to challenge its delay of the Borrower Defense Rule—a regulation aimed at protecting students from predatory for-profit colleges. The organization’s website also makes available Public Citizen’s friend-of-the-court brief supporting implementation of a 2014 rule known as the Gainful Employment Rule. That rule is designed to protect students from exploitation by unethical for-profit colleges, but under DeVos, the department suspended important provisions of the rule

In addition, Public Citizen’s website includes a December 2018 report titled “Rewriting the TEACH Grant Rules: Lessons from a History of Mismanagement.” That report provides a critical analysis of grant-to-loan conversions under the department’s TEACH Grant program. The report documents decisions and errors by the department that contributed to the staggering number of teachers whose educational grants have been erroneously converted to student debt.

Public Citizen is seeking a court order declaring the department’s and DeVos’ action unlawful and enjoining them from blocking access to citizen.org on the department’s Wi-Fi and internal networks.