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LGBT Filtering Victory!

Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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August 13, 2009

Yesterday we won a great settlement of a lawsuit against two Tennessee school districts. Before, public schools in Nashville and Knoxville had blocked access to all Web sites that presented positive information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Yet they allowed access to Web sites urging individuals to attempt to change their sexual orientation or gender identity (a practice the American Psychological Association recently denounced). Blocking access to just one side of a debate is called viewpoint discrimination – the government cannot favor one side of the debate over another – and it violates the Constitution. Yesterday a federal court approved a settlement binding the schools to never again block access to the favorable sites and agreeing that, if the schools violate the settlement, the court will take up the lawsuit again.

Students and faculty were understandably upset by Nashville and Knoxville’s discriminatory practice, which they protested to school officials for many months before finally resorting to contacting the ACLU of Tennessee. When the ACLU and the Tennessee affiliate investigated, it quickly became apparent that about 80 percent of Tennessee school districts were using the same Internet filtering software as Nashville and Knoxville, strongly suggesting that all of these schools were blocking access to the LGBT-supportive websites.

After Nashville and Knoxville ignored written requests from the ACLU that they change their policy, we sued the school districts on behalf of a courageous group of students and a school librarian who decided to take a public stand. One of those students, Bryanna Shelton, shared her thoughts when the case was first filed in this video.

The school districts hastily backed down and stopped blocking the educational Web sites. And in a very heartening move, all of the other school districts using the same filtering software appear to have changed their blocking practices as well.

Some of the press coverage of the settlement quotes a school official as saying that “the lawsuit is dismissed with prejudice meaning it can never be brought again. It’s over.” That’s not the case. The court’s order specifically provides that, if the schools violate the agreement and start blocking the websites again without adequate justification, the court will take up the case again. The settlement also obligates the school districts to inform the ACLU of Tennessee if it starting blocking the websites. The ACLU intends to make sure that the schools do not resume their unconstitutional filtering practice.

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