Several public high schools on March 28 received letters from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as local ACLU arms from Michigan, Kansas, and western Missouri, demanding that those schools stop using web filters to eliminate access to websites that support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.
The ACLU says it learned that the schools were censoring material after teaming with Yale Law School to launch the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, which asks students to check to see if their schools are blocking content.
“Under the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), schools are already required to filter out adult-oriented or sexually explicit materials,” said Joshua Block, an ACLU staff attorney for the LGBT and AIDS Project. “What’s happening at these schools is that in addition to filtering out [those sites], they have an additional filter they’re using and that filter is designed to filter out LGBT content.”
Block said that the filters remove sites that act as positive backing for LGBT students, such as Gay-Straight Alliance websites or other support groups.
“At the same time, they’re letting in content that’s very harmful to LGBT students, like reparative therapy and ex-gay sites, and what’s happening is that because of these viewpoints [and] discriminatory filters, the school is perfectly fine letting kids see material about homosexuality that is anti-gay, but at the same time they’re blocking the students from seeing supportive websites,” he said.
The ACLU asserts that programs blocking all LGBT content violate the First Amendment right to free speech, as well as the Equal Access Act, which requires equal access to school resources for all extracurricular clubs. This means that gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must have the same access to national organizational websites as other groups, such as the Key Club and the chess club.
“I couldn’t believe my school would block access to perfectly legitimate websites just because they were about LGBT issues,” said Nick Rinehart, a student at Rochester High School in Rochester Hills, Mich. Rinehart was blocked from looking up information on gay-straight alliances with a message that said his search violated Rochester High School’s acceptable use policy. “It’s not fair for the school to try to keep students in the dark about LGBT resources.”
“This is legitimate information that we need to know about,” said Molly Mendenhall, who attends Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Mo. “We need access to these sites to run our school clubs, to support each other, and to understand current events. Schools shouldn’t be putting limits on our education.”
The ACLU is also sending requests for information about web filtering programs to school districts in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Washington.
The ACLU said that some of the schools in question have configured their web filters to block access to websites pertaining to the National Day of Silence to protest anti-LGBT bullying. However, the filters sometimes allow access to sites that condemn homosexuality or urge LGBT people to try to change their sexual orientation, such as People Can Change.
“Any web filtering at a minimum has to be viewpoint neutral, that’s just a bedrock First Amendment principle,” said Block.
The ACLU has given the schools until April 4 to respond.
“This is a problem that is very, very easy to solve,” Block said, adding that all it takes to solve the issue is a simple filtering program adjustment.
“We’re optimistic that these school districts, like other school districts we’ve dealt with in the past, will see that this is plainly unconstitutional and be willing to fix this problem,” said Block. The ACLU took similar action against two school districts in 2009, before the districts eventually agreed to adjust their filtering practices.
Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out a form at action.aclu.org/dontfilterme. None of the schools targeted by the organization were available for comment as of press time.