Tennessee Schools End Censorship Of Gay Educational Web Sites After ACLU Lawsuit

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
June 4, 2009 12:00 am

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ACLU of Tennessee
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NASHVILLE, TN – Dozens of Tennessee schools have restored access to online information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, just over two weeks after the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against two Tennessee school districts for unconstitutionally blocking student access to such sites. The company that provides Internet filtering software to as many as 107 Tennessee school districts has adjusted the software to allow access to a variety of educational and political LGBT Web sites that were blocked before the lawsuit was filed.

"All we ever wanted was to be able to get information out about LGBT issues, like what our legal rights are or what scholarships are available for LGBT students, so I'm really happy that the schools are finally making our Web access fair and balanced," said Bryanna Shelton, a 16-year-old student at Fulton High School in Knoxville and a plaintiff in the case. "These Web sites were never something dirty or inappropriate in any way and shouldn't ever have been treated like they were."

On May 19, the ACLU filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee against Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Knox County Schools on behalf of two high school students in Nashville, one student in Knoxville and a high school librarian in Knoxville who is also the advisor of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).

About 80 percent of Tennessee public schools, including those in the two districts being sued, use filtering software provided by Education Networks of America (ENA). Until yesterday, the software's default setting blocked sites categorized as LGBT, including the sites of many well-known LGBT organizations. However, the filter did not block access to Web 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.

Last night, Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre released a statement saying that ENA was no longer blocking the LGBT category. The ACLU believes this change is in effect in all Tennessee districts that use the ENA software. Additionally, ENA's Web site shows that it has made a similar change for schools throughout the state of Indiana.

"Up until now, these schools were practicing unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, plain and simple. It was keeping students from accessing information about everything from their legal rights to statistics they needed for current events assignments," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group and lead attorney on the case. "We're pleased that these schools are finally living up to their legal obligation to allow the free and open exchange of ideas and information."

The ACLU first learned about the discriminatory filtering from Andrew Emitt, a Knoxville high school student who discovered the problem while trying to search for LGBT scholarships. Internet filtering software is mandated in public schools by Tennessee law, which requires schools to implement software to restrict information that is obscene or harmful to minors. However, the "LGBT" filter category does not include material which is sexually gratuitous and already included in the "pornography" filtering category.

"Schools that censor educational information out of some misguided assumption that anything about LGBT people is automatically sexual or inappropriate are doing a disservice to their students," said 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."

Due to the change in policy, students in Tennessee can now access the Web sites of many well-known national LGBT organizations which were previously blocked, including:

• Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
• The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
• Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
• Marriage Equality USA
• The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
• Dignity USA (an organization for LGBT Catholics)

In addition to Crump and Herzfeld, attorneys on the case are Chris Hansen of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group and Christine Sun of the ACLU LGBT Project.

The plaintiffs are Nashville students Keila Franks and Emily Logan, Knoxville student Bryanna Shelton, and Karyn Storts-Brinks, a Knoxville high school librarian and faculty sponsor for her school's GSA.

More information about the case, including the ACLU's complaint and a video featuring one of the student plaintiffs, is available online at: www.aclu.org/lgbt/youth/39346res20090413.html

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