The American Civil Liberties Union has asked public school officials in Tennessee to stop blocking students’ access to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender web sites on school computers — or face a possible lawsuit.

In a letter dated April 15, the organization said as many as 80 percent of Tennessee’s public school districts, including Knox County and Metro Nashville schools, might be restricting access to non-sexual sites that offer educational and political information about issues such as gay marriage or groups such as the Human Rights Campaign.

Tennessee schools are connected by a statewide computer network run by Education Networks of America (ENA). The network uses filtering software that groups web sites into different categories and allows local school officials to block or unblock those categories at their discretion.

One of the categories is called "LGBT," for sites that include information about lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues.

The ACLU’s letter asks Tennessee schools that use ENA’s filtering service to stop blocking sites designated as "LGBT," or the organization will file a lawsuit. According to the letter, the software’s default setting blocks all sites that ENA categorizes as "LGBT."

Federal and state law only requires schools to use filtering software to restrict information that is obscene or harmful to minors.

"When I found out about this web filtering software, I wasn’t looking for anything sexual or inappropriate–I was looking for information about scholarships for LGBT students, and I couldn’t get to it because of this software," said Andrew Emitt, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School in Knoxville. "Our schools shouldn’t be keeping students in the dark about LGBT organizations and resources."

In its letter, the ACLU gives the districts until April 29 to come up with a plan to restore access to these sites by the beginning of the 2009-10 school year.

"Students … are being denied access to content that is protected speech under the First Amendment, as well as the Tennessee state constitution," said Tricia Herzfeld, staff attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. "This kind of censorship does nothing but hurt students, whether they’re being harassed at school and want to know about their legal rights or are just trying to finish an assignment for a class."

ENA’s chief executive, David Pierce, issued a statement in response to the ACLU’s letter.

"ENA’s role is to provide internet services to our customers, which are school districts across Tennessee and other states," the statement read. "While our service includes filtering functionality, it is our customers who make the decisions about which categories are blocked or unblocked."

Representatives from both Metro Nashville Public Schools and Knox County Schools said their districts are reviewing the ACLU’s request and determining how best to address it.

Links:

American Civil Liberties Union

Education Networks of America