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Privacy & Security

ACLU: Schools Unconstitutionally Filtering LGBT Content

By Ian Quillen — March 28, 2011 2 min read

The American Civil Liberties Union, along with two regional branches, is sending letters to two schools to stop filtering online content related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues, saying blocking such sites violates students’ First Amendment rights.

The announcement of the letter writing campaign Monday follows a collaboration last month with the Yale Law School to launch the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign asking students to check if LGBT content at their schools was filtered.

The current schools found in violation, says the ACLU, are Rochester High in Rochester Hills, Mich., and Oak Park High in Kansas City, Mo., though it does not detail specific violations. It also indicated that this is a far more widespread problem that takes a couple different shapes.

Some schools, according to the ACLU, are guilty of filtering all LGBT content and thus infringing on free speech rights as well as the Equal Access Act that requires schools to give access to resources (including those on the Web) to all extracurricular clubs, including gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups. Ironically, the Equal Access Act was actually passed in 1984 after lobbying from religious groups who wanted to assure the rights of students to conduct Bible study programs during lunch or after school.

Even worse, the ACLU says, other schools have been found to block equal rights advocacy organization websites like those of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, while allowing access to sites that condemn homosexuality or insist homosexuals can be transformed into heterosexuals, such as People Can Change.

While the ACLU lumps these dual claims together, if they are true, they could stem from two very different causes.

Biased blocking of only sites that show LGBT issues positively points to a chief technology officer and/or a school culture with a specific and purposeful agenda. But blocking all LGBT-related could point to a CTO that either hasn’t targeted inappropriate material carefully enough using a filtering system’s parameters, or is using a system that lacks enough nuance.

A lack of complexity in filtering is a dwindling but a still-common complaint in some schools, especially as teachers look to use more complex and less restricted Web tools in their daily classroom operations.

The ACLU says it is giving offending schools until April 4 to respond. We’ll see if it decides to take legal action against unresponsive offending schools, and if it gains any traction.

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