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Victory Over Unfair Web Censoring In Tennessee

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June 4, 2009

We’re very excited about a victory for free speech and equality in Tennessee. Two weeks after we sued two Tennessee school districts for blocking student access to online information about LGBT issues, the Knox Country school district — and possibly all others in that state — have restored access to important educational sites.

Previously, as many as 107 Tennessee school districts using software from the Education Networks of America (ENA) were blocking students from accessing a category of Web sites designated “LGBT.” The designation covers a variety of educational and political LGBT sites, such as those of well-known advocacy groups like GLSEN, PFLAG and HRC.

However, the filter did not block access to sites 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 and the American Medical Association.

We sued on May 19, charging that blocking only one side of the issue constituted illegal viewpoint discrimination.

Last night, Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre announced that “technical adjustments” have now been made to allow access to the LGBT sites and bring the filtering into compliance with school board policy. According to McIntyre, efforts had been underway to fix the problem long before our lawsuit. That doesn’t explain why they couldn’t satisfactorily answer our original demand letter, which we sent before filing suit, but regardless — this is a positive sign that Tennessee schools are finally living up to their legal obligation to allow the free and open exchange of ideas and information.

Stay tuned — the case isn’t over yet. Says Tricia Herzfeld, staff attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee:

We aren’t dropping the lawsuit right away, but we certainly look forward to getting assurances from both school boards in this case that they will respect students’ rights and refrain from this sort of censorship in the future.

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