Dozens of Tennessee schools have restored students’ access to online information about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, just a few weeks after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against two Tennessee school districts for what the ACLU claimed was an unconstitutional blocking of student access to such sites.

David Pierce, president and CEO of the company that provides internet filtering services to as many as 107 Tennessee schools–Education Networks of America (ENA)–confirmed to eSchool News that his company has adjusted the software to allow access to a variety of educational and political LGBT web sites that were blocked before the ACLU filed its lawsuit.

According to Pierce, ENA has stopped blocking access to the sites for every school in Tennessee and Indiana–two key states that ENA serves.

"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). (See "ACLU sues over blocked web sites.")

About 80 percent of Tennessee public schools, including those in the two districts being sued, use filtering software provided by ENA. Until recently, 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 "reparative therapy" or "ex-gay" ministries, the ACLU claimed.

On June 3, Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre released a statement saying that ENA was no longer blocking web sites that fall under the LGBT category.

However, according to the ACLU, no one has personally contacted the organization to explain the change.

"We’re not going to drop the suit yet," said Tricia Herzfeld, staff attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee, in an interview with eSchool News. "We need assurances from both districts that this blocking won’t start up again a week from now, a month from now, et cetera."

She continued, "No one from ENA has contacted us, either, although Knox County schools said in a statement that ENA had made technical adjustments to bring the filters in line with school board policy."

"Up until now, these schools were practicing unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, plain and simple. [The filtering] 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’s 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 what it called discriminatory filtering from Andrew Emitt, a Knoxville high school student who discovered the problem while trying to search for LGBT-related 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" filtering category does not include material that is sexually graphic. That material falls under the "pornography" category.

Owing to the change in policy, students in Tennessee now can access the web sites of many well-known national LGBT organizations that previously were blocked, ENA says, including Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Marriage Equality USA, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

Links:

Education Networks of America

American Civil Liberties Union

Knox County Public School System

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools

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