ACLU Demands Tennessee Schools Stop Censoring Gay Educational Websites

April 15, 2009

Filtering Software Still Allows So-Called “Ex-Gay” Sites

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

NASHVILLE, TN - As many as 107 Tennessee public school districts could be illegally preventing students from accessing online information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, according to a letter to sent to school officials by the American Civil Liberties Union. The letter demands that Knox County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the Tennessee Schools Cooperative unblock the Internet filtering category designated “LGBT” so that students can access political and educational information about LGBT issues on school computers.

“When I found out about this web filtering software, I wasn’t looking for anything sexual or inappropriate – I was looking for information about scholarships for LGBT students, and I couldn’t get to it because of this software,” said Andrew Emitt, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School in Knoxville. “Our schools shouldn’t be keeping students in the dark about LGBT organizations and resources.”

In its letter, the ACLU gives the districts and the Tennessee Schools Cooperative until April 29 to come up with a plan to restore access to the LGBT sites or any other category that blocks non-sexual websites advocating the fair treatment of LGBT people by the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year. If that deadline is not met, the ACLU will file a lawsuit.

“Students at Knox County and Metro Nashville schools are being denied access to content that is protected speech under the First Amendment as well as the Tennessee state constitution,” said Tricia Herzfeld, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. “This kind of censorship does nothing but hurt students, whether they’re being harassed at school and want to know about their legal rights or are just trying to finish an assignment for a class.”

The Internet filtering software used by Knox County and Metro Nashville school districts blocks student access to the websites of many well-known national LGBT organizations, including:

  • Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
  • The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
  • Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
  • Marriage Equality USA
  • Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry
  • The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
  • Dignity USA (an organization for LGBT Catholics)

In its demand letter, the ACLU notes that websites that urge LGBT persons to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through so-called “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay” ministries – a practice denounced as dangerous and harmful to young people by such groups as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics – can still be easily accessed by students.

“One of the problems with this software is that it only allows students access to one side of information about topics that are part of the public debate right now, like marriage for same-sex couples,” said Karyn Storts-Brinks, a librarian at Fulton High School in Knoxville, pointing out that the software blocks access to organizations that support marriage for same-sex couples like the Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry or the Interfaith Working Group while allowing access to organizations that oppose marriage equality. “Students who need to do research for assignments on current events can only get one viewpoint, keeping them from being able to cover both sides of the issue. That’s not fair and can hinder their schoolwork.”

“Public schools are supposed to be a place where students learn from the open exchange of ideas,” said Eric Austin, a senior at Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, which also uses the filtering software. “How are we supposed to be informed citizens and learn how to have respectful debate when our schools rule out an entire category of information for no good reason?”

No federal or state law requires school districts to block access to LGBT sites. Tennessee law, Tenn. Code § 49-1-221, only requires schools to implement filtering software to restrict information that is obscene or harmful to minors. About 80 percent of Tennessee public schools, including those in the Knox County and Metro Nashville districts, use filtering software provided by Education Networks of America (ENA), and the software’s default setting blocks sites ENA categorizes as LGBT. The ACLU believes that most of the 107 Tennessee school districts that use ENA’s filtering software keep the LGBT category blocked. ENA blocks access to a wide category of “LGBT” sites described on the organization’s website as

Sites that provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater to one's sexual orientation or gender identity including but not limited to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender sites. This category does not include sites that are sexually gratuitous in nature which would typically fall under the Pornography category. Examples: glsen.org, gsanetwork.org, hrc.org

“When public schools only allow access to one side of an issue by blocking certain websites, they’re engaging in illegal viewpoint discrimination,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “Over a hundred other school districts in Tennessee use the same filtering software used in Metro Nashville and Knox County, and we’re eager to find out whether any of those systems are also violating students’ Constitutional rights by restricting access to LGBT sites.”

Tennessee students, teachers, or school librarians whose schools use the ENA web filtering software and find that their access to LGBT websites is restricted are encouraged to contact the ACLU of Tennessee by phone at 615-320-7142 or by email at aclutn@aclu-tn.org.

Austin, Emitt, and Storts-Brinks are represented by Herzfeld, Chris Hansen and Catherine Crump of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, and Christine Sun of the ACLU LGBT Project.

A copy of the ACLU’s demand letter is available at /lgbt/youth/39346res20090413.html.

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