ACLU Sues Missouri School District Over Alleged Censorship
The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit against the Camdenton School District for its using web filters to allegedly block students accessing LGBT-affirming content.
As part of its Don’t Filter Me campaign the ACLU informed the school district back in May that if it continued to block access to literally hundreds of age-appropriate LGBT websites, many of which contained anti-bullying resources and gay-straight alliance information, the district would be “subject to legal liability and the expense of litigation.” The district unblocked certain anti-bullying websites but ignored the warning about its so-called “sexuality” filter.
Good to their word, the ACLU on Tuesday filed a lawsuit on behalf of four organizations the district’s web filter blocks. They are PFLAG National (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride and DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT organization. The district’s web filter, the complaint notes, does not block anti-LGBT websites that address the same topics. This, the lawsuit says, violates students’ First Amendment rights.
“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.”
Jody M. Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG National, highlighted in a statement why she believes it is important for students to have access to this information:
“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.”
The school district maintains that it does not filter LGBT content specifically but admits to using the sexuality filter. It says students can always ask for certain sites to be unblocked. The ACLU challenges this is stifling and unreasonable, especially when anti-LGBT websites are readily available.