February 27, 2013

Software Unconstitutionally Blocks Students from Sites Labeled "Sexuality" or "Intolerance"

February 27, 2013

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

SHILLINGTON, Pa. – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Pennsylvania have sent a letter requesting that school officials at Governor Mifflin School District in Berks County stop using Internet filters that violate students’ First Amendment free speech rights. The district uses a "sexuality" filter that blocks sites that express support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and an "intolerance" filter that blocks political advocacy sites that are labeled as intolerant.

Junior Maison Fioravante discovered that Governor Mifflin Senior High School was blocking access to web content geared toward LGBT communities while researching for a class project on social issues. However, sites for organizations that condemn homosexuality were not blocked. Fioravante circulated a petition and online video asking the school to stop blocking these sites, which has over 3,200 signatures.

"It’s not only important for support for LGBT students and those questioning their sexual identities to be able to access these sites, but also for students who simply want information for school projects," said Fioravante. "It’s wrong for my school to determine that this kind of information is too sensitive for the student body."

Fioravante was unable to access websites for organizations like the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Safe Schools Coalition, Freedom to Marry, the Equality Federation and Lambda Legal. Those sites were blocked for falling into the commercial filtering software’s "sexuality" filter.

"Being able to access information on the Internet at the school library is not only critical for academic purposes, it can also be a lifeline for LGBT students in crisis who don’t feel safe seeking support on their home computers," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Blocking these sites not only violates the First Amendment, but it does a disservice to students trying to learn about themselves and the world around them."

Although the "sexuality" filter blocks only websites that express an LGBT-supportive viewpoint, a separate filter called "intolerance" blocks some websites from organizations like the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council, which oppose legal protections for LGBT people.

"Regardless of whether you support or oppose legal protections for LGBT people, these sorts of viewpoint-based filters puts everyone’s First Amendment rights at risk," said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. "If you give school officials the power to censor viewpoints they don’t like, they may use that power to block your own viewpoint too."

Governor Mifflin School District uses filtering software from Smoothwall, Ltd. Last year, a federal judge ruled against a school district in Camdenton, Missouri, that refused to remove a similar discriminatory filter.

The letter asks the district to advise the ACLU by March 14 whether and how it will address the filtering problem.

More information, including a copy of today’s letter to the school district, can be found here: www.aclu.org/free-speech-lgbt-rights/governor-mifflin-school-district-and-filtering-lgbt-online-content

More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools

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