ACLU Ensures Access to LGBT Web Content in Schools

by Maren Williams

In February 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union launched its “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, which aims to “prevent viewpoint-discriminatory censorship of positive LGBT web content in public schools nationwide.”  During its short lifetime, the project has succeeded in ensuring equal access to LGBT content in school districts across the country. In a May 16, 2012, Education Week article, ACLU staff attorney Joshua Block outlined his group’s efforts to identify and work with school districts in which non-pornographic LGBT content was being improperly filtered.

Citing the landmark school censorship case Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, Block establishes that “schools cannot block access to information on the Internet any more than they can engage in viewpoint based discrimination toward the books on the shelves.” Nevertheless, overzealous implementation of filtering software in school districts across the United States led to the ACLU receiving “a disturbing number of reports from students who were blocked from accessing websites about college scholarships for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers; anti-bullying resources; and activities for student-led gay-straight alliances.”

To make matters worse, says Block, many filters would keep students from viewing LGBT-positive content, “but allow access to websites that condemn homosexuality as immoral or oppose laws protecting LGBT people from bullying and discrimination.”

Block goes on to describe the chilling effect of discriminatory filtering:

At a time when bullying and suicide among LGBT youths is all too prevalent blocking certain websites deprives students of access to anti-bullying resources, suicide hotlines, and religious organizations that help students and families. This is especially relevant to students in crisis who may not feel safe accessing such sites from their home computers. By blocking these sites, or requiring students to ask for special permission for access, schools send a message that being gay, bisexual, or transgender is dirty or shameful….Even when a school allows students to ask for a censored site to be unblocked on a case-by-case basis, discriminatory filters still impede the free flow of information by placing special burdens on particular viewpoints, and they violate…students’ privacy by requiring them to disclose the nature of their searches to school officials. If students suspect that a staff person disapproves of their research, or if students wish to seek support online without outing themselves, policies like these may discourage them from accessing the information they need.

Upon communicating with school districts in which LGBT content was being blocked, the ACLU found that most had simply filtered a “sexuality” category that contained no pornography. Once the oversight was brought to their attention, says Block, “the vast majority of schools agreed the filters served no educational purpose and promptly disabled them.” The ACLU also appealed to the software companies that produced the filters and found many of them amenable to clarifying the distinction for their customers:

Several companies agreed to eliminate their LGBT categories and placed nonsexual LGBT websites in neutral categories such as social science, history, or other appropriate areas. Unfortunately, some businesses left the filter parameters unchanged, but agreed to issue public statements and enhanced customer guidance to make clear that websites identified in LGBT filters categories are nonsexual and should not be blocked by schools.

In one case, however, central Missouri’s Camdenton R-III district refused to alter its filter settings and consequently faced a lawsuit filed by several groups including the ACLU and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). The court’s finding in favor of the plaintiffs, says Block, reaffirms that information on the Internet is subject to the same First Amendment protections as books on library shelves:

In February, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri granted a preliminary injunction blocking the use of Camdenton’s Internet filter and finding in PFLAG V. Camdenton R-III School District that students don’t surrender their First Amendment rights when they log onto a school library computer. The federal court made clear that when a school district intentionally uses a discriminatory filter, it is engaging in viewpoint discrimination.

The “Don’t Filter Me” campaign is ongoing, and the ACLU encourages students who have encountered discriminatory filtering of LGBT content to report it via this form. A detailed interim report on the project is available here.

Such censorship by libraries has chilling implications, as the blocking of material could be extended to impact other legitimate educational material, including comics. CBLDF has had to help defend books, including Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed Fun Home, from library challenges related to content that addresses sexual orientation. CBLDF has also signed on against “harmful to minors” laws that would have restricted both artistic expression and access to educational information about sexual health and LGBT issues. In partnership with the ACLU of Utah and a coalition of Free Speech advocacy groups, the Fund recently scored a victory in Utah on such a case.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.