Missouri School District Pushes Back Over ’Gay Filters’
An ACLU initiative to gain access to GLBT resources for students denied those sites -- but still allowed to view anti-gay propaganda -- has met resistance from a Missouri school district that claims sites geared toward gay youth with supportive and fact-based information are "sex sites," ThinkProgress reported on Aug. 31.
The ACLU and Yale Law School joined forces earlier this year to create the "Don’t Filter Me" program, in order "to assess censorship of web content in public high schools," according to a Feb. 15 ACLU press release.
"The campaign asks students to check to see if web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities -- a frequent target of censorship in schools -- are blocked by their schools’ web browsers. Students can report instances of censorship to the ACLU LGBT Project," the release said.
"Students may not realize that it actually is illegal for their schools to block educational and political content geared toward the LGBT community," ACLU staff attorney Joshua Block said. "With this initiative, we hope to inform students of their rights, and let them know there is something they can do if their school is engaging in censorship."
"Programs that block all LGBT content violate First Amendment rights to free speech, as well as the Equal Access Act, which requires equal access to school resources for all extracurricular clubs, including gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups," the release noted.
"Some schools have improperly configured their web filters to block access to websites for LGBT rights organizations such as the GSA Network and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, but allow access to sites that condemn homosexuality or urge LGBT people to try to change their sexual orientation, such as People Can Change.
"Some schools have also improperly configured their web filters to block news items pertaining to issues like ’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and deny access to support groups that could be vital for troubled LGBT youth who either don’t have access to the Internet at home, or do not feel safe accessing such information on their home computers," continued the release.
"Schools harm students by denying them vital information," said Block, who is with the ACLU’s LGBT Project. "Schools not only have a legal duty to allow students access to these sites, it is also imperative that LGBT youth who are experiencing discrimination and bullying be able to access this information for their own safety."
But Camdenton School District sees no harm in allowing students to view anti-gay sites that claim being gay is a "choice" or a pathology that can be "cured" -- both claims that mental health experts reject.
Rather, Camdenton School District believes that students will be endangered by allowing them to view sites that offer non-sexual, but fact-based and affirming content for GLBT youths, an Aug. 15 suit filed against the district by several equality advocacy organizations claims.
"Camdenton is blocking websites that support LGBT individuals and rights, ’while allowing access to comparable websites that take anti-LGBT positions,’ said the lawsuit, filed by Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Dignity Inc.; the Matthew Shepard Foundation; and Campus Pride," the Washington Times reported on Aug. 29.
The ACLU has sent letters to a number of schools, including the Camdenton district, where filters reportedly blocked students any access to sites offering supportive, fact-based information, and succeeded in convincing most of them to remove filters that were too restrictive.
But Christian legal society the Alliance Defense Fund, which promotes a Biblical understanding of civil law, countered by sending out its own letters encouraging schools to stand firm and continue to deny GLBT students access to sites that would offer constructive views about themselves and their lives.
"We want to make sure that schools don’t unnecessarily cave to the ACLU’s demands," ADF attorney David Cortman told the press. Cortman also said that "school districts shouldn’t be bullied into exposing students to sexually explicit materials."
The ADF disparaged the "Don’t Filter Me" program as the "Public School Porn Initiative," ThinkProgress reported.
But the ACLU’s Block said that the ADF was "adding unnecessary confusion to the issue," and pointed out that there was no interest in allowing students to view "porn" -- just useful, non-sexual information that could help gay youths, especially in rural areas, feel less isolated.
But Cortman claimed that the ACLU’s initiative was not just about making sure that gay youths could view "It Gets Better" videos and access online information about supportive youth programs. Cortman argued that the ACLU was pushing to see filters for "entire categories" of sites removed. That, Cortman argued, could make sexually explicit material available to students.
A lawyer for the school district, Tom Mickes, told the Washington Times that the district had complied with the ACLU’s initial request by allowing access to specified sites offering supportive content to GLTB students. But the district refused to remove a filter that blocked references to "sexuality."
"No offense to the Easterners," Mickes told the press, "but we want to run our school district based on what our citizens and the kids in Missouri need, not what somebody in New York wants."
The ACLU has an online form where students can report illegal denial of access to appropriate online resources. Listed resources that the form cites include the website for the Day of Silence, an annual observance during which GLBT students and supporters refrain from talking while not in the classroom as a way of symbolizing the lack of voice of gay teens; the Trevor Project, which is dedicated to helping GLTB teens avoid suicidal behavior; the "It Gets Better" project, in which thousands of video messages encourage gay teens not to kill themselves; and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, an organization that combats bullying and anti-gay harassment in public schools. The new program is part of the ACLU’s own work to promote safer schools and counter GLBT harassment and bullying.
The matter of schools denying students access to appropriate information on GLBT issues has been a recurring one. A 2009 Examiner article reported that two Tennessee school districts were forced by an ACLU lawsuit to restore access to sites that offered appropriate resources to LGBT youth. The schools did not block sites that purported to help gays and lesbians "convert" to heterosexuality.
"All we ever wanted was to be able to get information out about LGBT issues, like what our legal rights are or what scholarships are available for LGBT students, so I’m really happy that the schools are finally making our web access fair and balanced," said Bryanna Shelton, one of the students involved in the case. "These web sites were never something dirty or inappropriate in any way and shouldn’t ever have been treated like they were."
The use of filters in attempts to prevent access to sites relevant to GLBT issues and news or to scrub words deemed offensive, such as "gay," sometimes has unintended results. In one incident, a filter used by a religious website, OneNewsNow, which is affiliated with anti-gay group the American Family Association, changed the name of 2007 Male World Athlete of the Year Tyson Gay to "Tyson Homosexual" when an Associated Press article about Gay appeared at the site.