Injunction Bars School Filtering of Gay-Support Websites

By Mark Walsh — February 16, 2012 2 min read
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A federal judge has issued an injunction barring a Missouri school district from allowing its Internet filters to block websites that offer positive viewpoints on gay people.

U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey of Jefferson City, Mo., held that the Campdenton school district’s use of filtering software that automatically blocks more than 40 sites that present positive outlooks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals amounts to viewpoint discrimination that likely violates the free-speech rights of the sites and of students seeking such information on school computers.

The judge suggested in her Feb. 15 opinion in Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays Inc. v. Camdenton R-III School District that the district’s choice of commercial filtering software was a big part of the problem.

The software, URL Blacklist, permits users to block categories including pornography, advertising, and “sexuality.” The sexuality category automatically blocks 41 sites offering gay-positive information, including those of PFLAG, Dignity USA, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, court papers say.

The 4,100-student school district argues that it uses Web filters to comply with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, and that it adjusts the filter to permit access to appropriate sites at users’ requests.

But Judge Laughrey found that URL Blacklist was a blunt instrument that “systematically targets the highest-quality informational sites that express a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.”

Another filtering software program that targets the school market did not block the gay-positive sites, and it did a better job of blocking pornography and other inappropriate sites than URL Blacklist did, the judge said. And the district appeared partially motivated by the opinion of at least one school board member and some in the community that the gay-information sites should be blocked, or that students should have parental permission to access them at school, the judge found.

In addition, the district’s system for allowing students to request that sites be unblocked was not truly anonymous, the judge said, and a cumbersone procedure could deter students seeking access to the gay-positive sites.

“Students may be deterred from accessing websites expressing a positive view toward
LGBT individuals either by the inconvenience of having to wait 24 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 judge said.

The lawsuit challenging the district’s Web-filtering system was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has this page with links to many legal documents in the case.

Ian Qullen of Education Week’s Digital Directions magazine wrote a story in October about the Web-filtering issue.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.