School District Ignored Requests to Remove Web Filter to Avoid Liability for Unconstitutional Viewpoint-Based Censorship
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ST. LOUIS – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit against Camdenton R-III School District today after the district ignored warnings that its Internet filtering software had been improperly configured to block access to web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of LGBT organizations whose websites are blocked by the filter: PFLAG National (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride and DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT organization.
“We have made every effort to inform the school district that its filtering software illegally denies students access to important educational information and resources on discriminatory grounds,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Unfortunately, it will now be up to the courts to compel the district to grant its students viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”
The district’s custom-built filtering software relies on a database of websites compiled by URL Blacklist, which has a viewpoint-neutral category that allows schools to block all sexually explicit content. But it also has a viewpoint-discriminatory category called “sexuality,” which blocks all LGBT-related information, including hundreds of materials that are not sexually explicit. The filter does, however, allow students to view anti-LGBT sites.
“School districts cannot use filtering software that discriminates against websites based on their viewpoint,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “This filter was designed to block more than just adult content and is not viewpoint-neutral. There are many other filtering systems available that do not arbitrarily group websites like PFLAG in the same category as adult-oriented websites.”
The ACLU informed the district in May that the sexuality filter was unconstitutionally blocking access to four websites with anti-bullying information and other resources for student gay-straight alliances. The district unblocked those websites but refused to reconfigure its software to solve the broader problem. As a result, hundreds of other LGBT websites remain blocked. The lawsuit argues it is discriminatory and unreasonable to require students to ask for permission every time they want to access a new LGBT website when students can freely access anti-LGBT websites.
“Our Safe Schools program resources, coming-out guides and other support and education resources that we have been providing to LGBT young people nationwide for nearly 40 years are all blocked,” said Jody M. Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG National. “Many LGBT students either don’t have access to the Internet at home or, if they do, they don’t feel safe accessing this information on their home computers. In order to ensure the physical and mental well-being of LGBT youth – especially given the wide access to negative information on LGBT issues – these resources must be accessible.”
More information on this case can be found here: www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/pflag-v-camdenton-r-iii-school-district
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools