ACLU Files First Legal Case of LGBT Filtering Campaign

By Ian Quillen — August 15, 2011 3 min read
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The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday announced the first lawsuit of its “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, which will be filed against Missouri’s 4,100-student Camdenton R-III School District for alleged improper Web filtering practices toward educational lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual content.

The ACLU says the district is using a filtering system that is built upon the commercially managed URL Blacklist, which provides lists of sites by category to subscribers who usually then feed the lists to a cloud-based filter system or build their own. It is filing the suit on behalf of LGBT advocacy sites such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride, and DignityUSA, which ACLU attorney Joshua A. Block says have been blacked out because they fall into a “sexuality” category.

Block said the practice is especially problematic—as well as illegal—because the school’s filter wasn’t found to enforce nearly the same level of scrutiny toward sites that oppose LGBT lifestyles.

“We haven’t yet detected a single anti-LGBT website that is being blocked by the filter,” said Block, who added that the plaintiffs in the suit are only a small sampling of sites that are being blocked. “It’s sort of jaw-dropping, when you keep flipping the pages, how many things are blocked by this. With many other schools, including schools that use the same filter, we’ve been able to have follow-up conversations and solve the problem with them. But this [district] has been very intransigent.”

District Superintendent Tim Hadfield countered that Camdenton’s system, while based on URL Blacklist, has been customized by its technology staff, in part to allow access to some sites that would otherwise be restricted. He said not all of the sites involved in the suit are blocked within the district, though he could not immediately specify which sites were allowed.

Hadfield added that the district does allow students and teachers to electronically request access to blocked sites that they believe fall within the district’s rules for appropriateness. Those who make a request do have to identify themselves to district technology staff, but not to other students, teachers, or administrators.

“We certainly do not want to violate students’ or staff’s constitutional rights,” Hadfield said. “But at same time we do want to protect our students and staff from inappropriate material on the Internet.”

Both Block and Hadfield agree the Camdenton district did take action to unblock the four sites that initiated the complaint, including the homepages for Day of Silence, The Trevor Project, the GSA Network, and the Gay, Straight, Lesbian Education Network.

Sites such as URL Blacklist, coupled with open-source or customized filtering software are often viewed as a way to provide the same service as commercial filtering software at a far lower price. But Hadfield said consultations with the district’s lawyer, and not expense, were what prompted the decision to continue current filtering practices.

“I’m not even looking down that avenue,” Hadfield said. “Budget aside, we just want to do what is right for students and our staff in the district.”

The ACLU launched its “Don’t Filter Me” campaign in February, announcing its aim to defend rights protected by the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act. The latter legislation, enacted in 1984, was passed to force public middle and high schools to allow equal access to extracurricular clubs, regardless of political, social, or religious orientation. It was lobbied for by religious groups who sought the right for students to form after-school Bible study clubs, but has since become a legal pillar for school gay-straight alliances.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.