ACLU steps up fight against overzealous school internet filters

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The ACLU on Monday filed a federal lawsuit against a public school district in Missouri which blocks school computers from access to LGBT supportive organizations, such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

In the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, the ACLU charges that the school district’s web-filtering violates the First Amendment rights of its students.

“It is well-established,” says the ACLU lawsuit, filed Monday, August 15, against the public school district in Camdenton, Missouri, “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, known as Camdenton R-III School District, uses a software on its library computers to block students from accessing obscene or pornographic sites. The school district told a local paper last week that it allows students to access some blocked sites if the students request to do so.

The ACLU says that public schools across the country are “often” using an internet filter software by Lightspeed Systems which, the ACLU says 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. The ACLU says 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 PFLAG, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride, and Dignity USA. The filter does not block access to anti-gay websites.

A chart on the 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 which are using overly restrictive filters. The letters are part of the ACLU’s national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, launched in February.

In the northern California town of Oroville, ACLU sent a demand letter in May saying that it had received complaints from students about a “Lifestyle” filter from the M86 Security company 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 that the anti-LGBT filter had been activated.”

The filter used by Oroville, said the ACLU, 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.

In a demand letter in May to the Avoca School District 37 in Wilmette, Illinois, the ACLU noted that a Lightspeed system was blocking sites that provide “education about lifestyles—gay, lesbian, alternate.”

“Your students,” said the letter, “have a First Amendment right to access GSA Network, GLSEN, Day of Silence, and similar materials that are blocked by the ‘education.lifestyles’ filter.”

Some school districts receiving the letter have claimed, like Camdenton, that the ACLU is mistaken about its filter. In Michigan, for instance, 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 sites has 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 justify its blocks “were reasonable methods of complying with CIPA….”

On August 11, the Federal Communications Commission issued a “Report and Order” that adds to the CIPA language adopted by Congress in 2008 through the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, a section of the Broadband Data Improvement Act. The Protecting Children legislation requires that schools receiving these certain federal funds educate children about internet safety issues, including how to respond to cyberbullying.

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.”

One Response to ACLU steps up fight against overzealous school internet filters

  1. Arouete says:

    Wonderful news. I was wondering what had happened to the ACLU. With the marriage equality issue and DADT dominating the landscape activism like this has seemed pretty much asleep over the past few years.

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