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ACLU Sues Missouri School District Over Alleged Censorship

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.

More from the ACLU press release:

“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 districtís 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 donít have access to the Internet at home or, if they do, they donít feel safe accessing this information on their home computers. In order to ensure the physical and mental well-being of LGBT youth Ė especially given the wide access to negative information on LGBT issues Ė 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.

Related Reading:

Web Filtering Company Will No Longer Block LGBT Content

Georgia Public Schools Blocking LGBT Websites?

Donít Filter Me!: ACLU Campaigns to Get Positive LGBT Websites Unblocked in Schools

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Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License with thanks to NotionsCapital.com

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17 comments

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9:03PM PDT on Aug 20, 2011

Where does the school district get their nerve?Someone should tell them this is a free country (at least I think it is,I'm not sure anymore).

8:58PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

The main problem with restricting access to 'any' subject matter, is, WHO is doing the restricting?
What is their agenda?
What is this person or group, decides that they don't like something that YOU are doing or saying?
Who restricts them, from going after you?

8:50PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

Maybe, we should keep the southern states, in the dark, about anything happening outside of their areas. The only trepidation, I have is, that the progressive thinkers must suffer the safe uninformed fate. My heart goes out to the sane ones, in these states. I don't know how they tolerate it.

4:46PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

[part 3]

Marilyn mentioned about the sites being part of the curriculum. That is ridiculously easy to manage. US Government or Civics class: Write a paper related to a current political issue. Include viewpoints and statements from the opposing side that you are arguing for. English: Write a research paper comparing and contrasting the views and positions related to some current event or issue. Debate Team: Prepare for the next competition based on recent topics given. Speech Class: You and your partner (pairing "drawn from a hat") will be debating each other on a topic on which you disagree about. See the teacher if you are having problems deciding on a topic.

I have no issue with many things that are filtered in schools. Pornographic material, online games, chat rooms and sites, and others. That is not the issue. What is the issue is that the school is censoring sites based on their message while allowing sites with the opposing message through without interference. Kids do not always have a safe environment at home in which to research controversial issues that concern them, and the school needs to be available to allow the students to research this material safely.

4:46PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

[part 2]

What's more, the viewpoint filter violates federal law, specifically the Equal Access Act since the filter includes blocking sites dealing with forming clubs like Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), while allowing students to access sites about forming clubs like Key Clubs.

Here is the link to the complaint filed with the courts:
http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/pflagcomplaint.pdf

If you look at paragraph 46 (starting page 14), you will see a list of LBGT related sites that are blocked by the schools filtering software that should not be.

In paragraph 50 (starting page 23), you will see a list of sites that are anti-LBGT and LBGT rights which are open to the students.

This is rather blatant viewpoint discrimination.

The blacklist even blocks a URL which presents a US Supreme Court decision, Lawrence vs. Texas, but it allows the URL to the decision U.S. Supreme Court decision which was overturned by Lawrence vs. Texas.

Marilyn mentioned about the sites being part of the curriculum. That is ridiculously easy to manage. US Government or Civics class: Write a paper related to a current political issue. Include viewpoints and statements from the opposing side that you are arguing for. English: Write a research paper comparing and contrasting the views and positions related to some current event or issue. Debate Team: Prepare for the next competition based on recent topics given. Speech Class: You and your partner (pairing "drawn from a hat") will be

4:45PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

There are several problems with what the Missouri schools are doing. One of the main ones is that they are practicing viewpoint discrimination. This means that they are allowing students to access sites that present one viewpoint of an issue while blocking sites that present another.

Here is a link to the Demand Letter that the ACLU sent to the school system, dated May 24, 2011.
http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/demand_letter_05242011.pdf

Some of the sites that they mention being blocked include certain pages and reference materials dealing with LBGT issues and bullying from the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, GLSEN, the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy, the CDC, the American Library Association, the New York Public Library, and advocacy groups and legal resources.

What's more, the issue has already reached the Supreme Court, and it has been decided that the access to the internet needs to be viewpoint neutral when the access is provided by a government entity like a public school.

"[T]he First Amendment forbids the government to regulate speech in ways that favor some viewpoints or ideas at the expense of others." Lamb's Chapel v. Ctr. Moriches Union Free School District. 508 U.s. 384, 394 (1993)

There are other quotes in the demand letter.

What's more, the viewpoint filter violates federal law, specifically the Equal Access Act since the filter includes blocking sites dealing with forming clubs like Gay-Strai

3:42PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

The Camdenton School District needs to take leep into the 21st Century. There are many GLBT websites that have nothing to do with pornography or anything inappropriate.

3:04PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

Forgot to mention....if it IS part of the curriculum, then it should be unblocked.

If not, then the kids shouldn't be using school time and school computers for anything but schoolwork...regardless of the material they're searching...whether it's about gay rights or recipes for spaghetti.
Libraries have computers and most homes have computers.
My point is.....There is a time and place for everything.

2:56PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

Brian: I doubt that kids are learning anything about LGBT issues as part of the curriculum.

Leslea: There's nothing holding anyone back from learning whatever they want to learn at home.

The point I'm making is that school administrators can't filter this and not that. The software is what it is. If the choice is not to filter anything just to keep that pathway open, then it isn't an option because believe it or not....kids DO abuse their privileges.

Schools are overcrowded and understaffed these days so it's hard enough to get the kids learning the basics they'll need to get into college or get jobs when they graduate...IF they graduate.

There are not enough staff members to police what kids are doing on the computers at schools.

To assume it's bigotry is a bit bigoted.

1:33PM PDT on Aug 18, 2011

Marilyn So Busy D.:
You missed the whole point, the filter software does not allow someone to learn in an equitable fashion if they can only research one side of an argument.
What the school has done is point blank discrimination and thus illegal.

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