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By Lisa Keen
The ACLU on Aug. 15 filed a federal lawsuit against a public school district in Missouri that blocks school computers from access to LGBT supportive organizations.
The ACLU charges that the school district’s web filtering violates the First Amendment rights of its students.
“It is well-established,” says the lawsuit, filed Aug. 15 against the public school district in Camdenton, Mo., “that the First Amendment prohibits public schools from censoring school library resources in a manner that discriminates against disfavored viewpoints.”
The ACLU brief cites a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Board of Ed v. Pico, in which a majority held that the First Amendment puts limits on a local school board’s authority to remove books from the school libraries.
Camdenton public schools use software on its library computers to block students from accessing obscene or pornographic sites. The school district told a local paper two weeks ago that it allows students to access some blocked sites at students’ request.
The ACLU says that public schools across the country are often using Internet filter software by Lightspeed Systems that blocks websites with LGBT-supportive content. The ACLU says Lightspeed has agreed to modify its software to provide a viewpoint-neutral filter that doesn’t block LGBT-supportive sites. Five other companies also produce software that filters out LGBT-supportive sites: Blue Coat Systems, M86 Solutions, Fortiguard, Websense and URL Blacklist.
The ACLU lawsuit, PFLAG v. Camdenton, says the Camdenton school district filter blocks student access to the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays website, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride and Dignity USA. The filter does not block access to anti-gay websites.
A chart on the ACLU.org website identifies a number of states, including California, Texas, Illinois, Georgia, Ohio and Michigan, in which it is either investigating or sending demand letters to school districts that are using overly restrictive filters. The letters are part of the ACLU’s national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign that was launched in February.
In Oroville, Calif., the ACLU sent a demand letter in May saying that it had received complaints from students about a “Lifestyle” filter from M86 Security that blocks access to LGBT-supportive organizational websites. The letter notes that the ACLU has found that some school districts around the country have been blocking LGBT-supportive sites without even realizing it.
The ACLU said the filter used by Oroville had been configured to block access to the GSA Network, Campus Pride, Day of Silence, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, the Safe Schools Coalition and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Some school districts receiving the letter say the ACLU is mistaken about its filter. In Michigan, an attorney for the Wayne-Westland Community Schools responded to a demand letter in April, saying that students can access the website for the Gay-Straight Alliance if they are “properly logged on.”
But in others, school officials have taken immediate steps to correct the problem. In Adine, Texas, school superintendent Wanda Bamberg responded immediately to a demand letter in May, saying the block on LGBT websites had been removed.
The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, passed in 2000, requires that public school receiving certain federal funds use an Internet filter to block access to websites that include obscene or pornographic material. The ACLU says that Camdenton cannot prove its blocks were reasonable methods of complying with CIPA.
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that 25 states also have state laws requiring Internet filters in public schools and libraries.
Joshua Block, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National LGBT Project, said many students in public schools don’t realize that blocking their access to LGBT-supportive sites violates their First Amendment rights.
“Schools not only have a legal duty to allow students access to these sites,” said Block in a press release, “it is also imperative that LGBT youth who are experiencing discrimination and bullying be able to access this information for their own safety.”