The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri has ruled that a Camdenton High School must cease its practice of using web filtering software that bars students from accessing LGBT affirming websites.
The lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Western Missouri, was filed in August 2011 following the ACLU’s repeated warnings that the school’s custom-built filtering software was illegally censoring LGBT affirming websites while at the same time allowing students to access sites that condemn LGBT identity and oppose LGBT equality.
Websites that were blocked include PFLAG National (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride and DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT organization.
The school argued that students were free to ask to have individual websites unblocked at any time and thus contended that the software was fair and a necessary step in preventing access to adult content.
However, the court ruled this to be false, saying that the schools filtering system “systematically allows access to websites expressing a negative viewpoint toward LGBT individuals by categorizing them as ‘religion,’ but filters out positive viewpoints toward LGBT issues by categorizing them as ‘sexuality.’”
The court held that the school’s defense that students could request websites be unblocked was not satisfactory, saying: “students may be deterred from accessing websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals either by the inconvenience of having to wait twenty-four hours for access or by the stigma of knowing that viewpoint has been singled out as less worthy by the school district and the community.”
The court concluded that for the purposes of filtering adult content there are systems available that are “much more effective” than the one the school employed, and that other systems “do so without burdening websites that express a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.”
“The filtering system that had been installed at Camdenton R-III was arbitrary, ineffective and discriminatory,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Today’s ruling affirms that students will be free to search for resources for their gay-straight alliance, seek support against bullying and research history as it pertains to LGBT people, just as they would for any other subject.”
“The court correctly recognized the constitutional rights of all students to viewpoint-neutral access to information,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “It is absolutely possible to protect children from sexually explicit content while also protecting their First Amendment rights. Like thousands of other school districts across the country, Camdenton R-III will now begin using a filtering system that blocks pornography without discriminating against LGBT-related content.”
Campus Pride also released the following statement regarding the ruling:
“Campus Pride is pleased to learn of the District Court’s ruling in our favor today. Finding an LGBT-friendly college and learning about valuable LGBT services on campuses should not be blocked for any reason. Every young person should have access in their schools to such online information provided by Campus Pride, especially those seeking safer, more welcoming places to learn, live and grow. Our online resources are essential in delivering a message of hope and support — and in changing the lives of LGBT and ally young people. We are encouraged knowing that the rights of students in the Camdenton R-III School District have been protected.”
The lawsuit came about as part of the ACLU’s ‘Don’t Filter Me’ campaign which aims to empower students to report instances of schools using computer software to prevent access to LGBT-affirming websites.
The ACLU warned the school in May of last year 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 school would be “subject to legal liability and the expense of litigation.” The school unblocked certain anti-bullying websites but ignored the warning about its so-called “sexuality” filter.
It is unclear at this time whether the school is considering a legal appeal.