The 10 biggest ed-tech stories of 2011

9. The ACLU spurs changes in how schools use internet filtering software.

Through a national campaign called “Don’t Filter Me,” the American Civil Liberties Union has called on high school administrators and the makers of web filtering software to stop blocking students’ access to information supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.

As a result of the group’s efforts, high schools in at least 11 states have agreed to change their filtering practices, and web filtering companies have responded as well. Lightspeed Systems was among the first to respond to the complaint, removing its “education.lifestyles” filter that blocked access to educational LGBT-related information.

According to the ACLU, many schools activated the filter mistakenly, believing that it blocked sexually explicit content, when in reality it blocked sites such as the Gay Straight Alliance Network; the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network; and the official website for the annual Day of Silence that protests anti-LGBT bullying.

Lightspeed told clients that it would discontinue the filter as of May 23, placing the sites currently in the “education.lifestyles” category into a variety of different categories to make sure the sites were properly categorized without regard to their “political or moral viewpoint.”

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.”

Most schools contacted by the ACLU promised to amend their practices, but the civil-rights organization sued a Missouri school district in August when it refused to comply.

The ACLU sued the Camdenton R-III School District in central Missouri on behalf of organizations whose websites are blocked by the district’s web filter. Those organizations include the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said in a news release that every effort had been made to inform the district that its filtering software “illegally denies students access to important educational information and resources on discriminatory grounds.” Rothert added during a telephone interview with the Associated Press (AP) that the district unblocked a few websites, but dozens more remained blocked.

Superintendent Tim Hadfield told a local newspaper that the district doesn’t feel its internet filtering system has violated students’ rights. “We do specifically block sites that are inappropriate and will continue to do so,” he said.

See also:

ACLU demands high schools remove anti-gay filters

Companies respond to ACLU’s ‘Don’t Filter Me’ campaign

ACLU sues Missouri school district over internet filtering

eSchool News Staff

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