Missouri Education Group Will No Longer Provide Schools With Software That Illegally Censors LGBT Web Content
MOREnet Will Stop Activating Category Censoring Websites Based on LGBT Content
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ST. LOUIS – The Missouri Research & Education Network (“MOREnet”), a consortium that provides Internet access and filtering software to 100 school districts across the state, confirmed today it will no longer activate a feature on its filtering software that blocked non-sexual content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
The organization made the announcement after receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri and the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), which alerted MOREnet to the illegal censorship of LGBT-related websites, which was first reported to the ACLU by a public school student as part of the organization’s “Don’t Filter Me” initiative.
“MOREnet should be commended for acting quickly and responsibly once we alerted them to this problem,” said Tony Rothert, legal director at the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “We hope that other schools and libraries follow MOREnet’s example and make sure that their filtering systems are not accidentally configured to block non-sexual websites that relate to LGBT people.”
MOREnet, which is associated with the University of Missouri, provides filtering services to public schools and libraries by hosting filtering software from Netsweeper, which includes a category called “Alternative Lifestyles” that blocks websites that support LGBT people and their legal rights, such as the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network; Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and Marriage Equality USA. However, it does not block websites that condemn homosexuality or oppose LGBT legal protections. In addition, the “Alternative Lifestyles” filter blocks websites related to vegans and vegetarians, but does not block websites that encourage people to eat meat and poultry.
In its letter to the ACLU and the Freedom to Read Foundation, MOREnet announced that it would no longer activate the “Alternative Lifestyles” filter on the Netsweeper software it operates. The Netsweeper software operated by MOREnet will continue to block sexually explicit and pornographic content through the categories for “Pornography” and “Adult Image,” which do not distinguish between straight and LGBT-related websites.
In a separate letter written directly to the Netsweeper company, the ACLU, the ACLU of Eastern Missouri and the Freedom to Read Foundation asked Netsweeper to reform its filtering categories to eliminate the “Alternative Lifestyles” filter entirely.
“Companies that sell their products to public schools have a responsibility to ensure that their products do not engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “Filters that needlessly discriminate against LGBT websites do not serve the interest of public schools or the students they serve.”
When used by a public school, programs that block all LGBT content violate First Amendment rights to free speech as well as the Equal Access Act, which requires equal access to school resources for all extracurricular clubs. This means that gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must have the same access to national organizational websites that help them to function, just as other groups such as the Key Club and the chess club are able to access their national websites. By blocking access to LGBT websites, schools deny helpful information to gay-straight alliances and other support groups that could be vital for troubled LGBT youth who either don’t have access to the Internet at home or do not feel safe accessing such information on their home computers.
“The Freedom to Read Foundation has been pleased to be part of this positive effort to ensure that constitutionally protected library content is now available to Missouri library users,” said Barbara Jones, executive director of FTRF.
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools