January 19, 2010

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 410-889-8555; media@aclu-md.org

BEL AIR, MARYLAND – The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is joining with several Harford County parents and students to demand that the Harford County Public Schools stop illegally blocking internet access to information about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. In a January 15 letter, the ACLU asks that the school system unblock the internet filtering category "LGBT" so that students and teachers can access political and educational information about LGBT issues on school computers.

"Public schools – and especially school libraries – are supposed to be places where students can gain access to information on all the important topics of today and tomorrow," said Lauren Rogers, a 2009 Havre de Grace graduate who encountered difficulties with schoolwork and otherwise looking up information because of the filtering. "We, as future leaders, want to be able to understand these issues, how people are impacted by them, and the different arguments on both sides. We want to be able to make well-informed decisions."

Several teachers and students, including a student Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Bel Air High School, have previously requested that Web sites supportive of gay rights be unblocked so students could access them as a resource for school projects and assignments. But their requests have been denied. The ACLU letter asks that the school system reconsider its decision and unblock the LGBT category, in light of legal authority making clear the filtering is impermissible.

"Censorship like this flies in the face of the basic notion that public schools are a place where our children can be educated about important issues of the day – even if those issues might at times be controversial ones," said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon. "Not only is it unconstitutional, but it does a disservice to students when schools block access to Web sites that advocate tolerance and fair treatment for LGBT individuals, while permitting sites that condemn homosexuality."

The Internet filtering device used by the Harford school system — "BlueCoat," a service provided through a company called Evolution -- gives the school system the option to filter, or block access to, any of 60 categories of information. Among its choices, Harford has elected to block protected speech under the category, "LGBT." Blue Coat describes this category as follows:

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.

The filter blocks access to many well-known state and national LGBT organizations, as well as various religious organizations supportive of gay rights, including, among many others:

  • Equality Maryland
  • Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
  • The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
  • Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
  • The Interfaith Working Group
  • Dignity USA (LGBT Catholics)
  • Jewish Mosaic

No federal or state law requires schools to block access to LGBT sites. The federal Children's Internet Protection Act only requires filtering of images that are obscene or harmful to minors.

"One of the problems with Harford's filtering scheme is that it only allows students access to information on one side of the public debate on LGBT issues," said ACLU cooperating attorney Alli Harper. "For example, one of the students we are working with was blocked researching for a paper arguing the 'pro' side of the marriage equality issue. She had to get an extension to do the assignment outside of school. Meanwhile, the students making the 'con' argument were able to access the information needed via the school computers."

"As one of the founders of the LGBT-friendly student group at Havre de Grace, the Equality Warriors, we could not get access to the Web sites that provide the resources, support and information needed to form and build such a student group," said Kate Hickey, another 2009 graduate of Havre de Grace High School who helped to found this student group with Lauren Rogers and other students.

The ACLU is uncertain whether other school systems in Maryland use Bluecoat filtering or similar services that block access to information supportive of LGBT rights. Public school students, teachers, or school librarians in Maryland counties other than Harford who find that their access to LGBT Web sites is blocked are encouraged to contact the ACLU of Maryland by phone at 410-889-8555, or by email at swift@aclu-md.org.

Lawyers working with the students on the matter are C. Christopher Brown and Alli Harper, of Baltimore's Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP; and Deborah Jeon of the ACLU of Maryland.

Go online to read the ACLU Demand Letter: www.aclu-md.org/aPress/Press2010/WebsiteFiltering.pdf

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