ACLU demands schools stop blocking gay websites | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

ACLU demands schools stop blocking gay websites

Posted By on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 11:41 AM

CENSORED: This is the sort of website blocked by filters in use in Little Rock and eStem schools.
  • CENSORED: This is the sort of website blocked by filters in use in Little Rock and eStem schools.

The Arkansas affiliate of the ACLU, as part of a national project, has written letters demanding that the Little Rock School District and the eStem Public Charter Schools stop blocking access on their computer systems to websites with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender content. It amounts to viewpoint censorship and of a particularly odious kind, based on what the ACLU has found.

“It’s simply unconstitutional for schools to pick and choose which points of view they’ll let students have access to, but that’s exactly what both the Little Rock School District and eStem Public Charter Schools have been doing,” said Holly Dickson, staff attorney of the ACLU of Arkansas. “They’ve been allowing access to abstinence websites and harmful so-called “reparative therapy sites, but not legitimate sites with appropriate information for LGBT youth and their allies. It is completely unacceptable.”

The ACLU letter to eStem notes, for example, that some mainstream websites, such as one promoting a Day of Silence as a show of support for gay students and another encouraging alliances of gay and straight students, are blocked by that school's use of a "lifestyle" content filter. But it does not block the hateful websites of the American Family Association and the Family Research Council, among other anti-gay organizations, or a group that makes a bogus claim of "therapy" to convert homosexuals.

The letter to LRSD indicates it blocks websites about homosexuality and advocacy groups. One teacher complained of being blocked from reaching a website with information about coping with bullying of gay students.

The ACLU indicates it will sue if the schools do not stop blocking students access to information the schools' deem inappropriate, a violation of the students' constitutional rights. It says the districts can filter sexual content while still allowing access to websites with useful information to students, some of whom might be fearful of accessing the information at home.

The ACLU had asked students and teachers nationwide to check to see if such content was censored and acted based on reports from students. This action does NOT mean these are the only two public school districts in Arkansas censoring gay content. Any court ruling will be guidance to all of them.

I've sought comments from LRSD and eStem. It's an important measure of both institutions. Middle school is a tough time, particularly for kids with emerging questions about sexuality. That they'd be denied access to credible, useful websites while being exposed to people peddling bigotry and bogus science is unspeakably sad, in addition to just legally wrong.

UPDATE: John Bacon, head of eStem, sent me this less-than-encouraging response:

It is unfortunate that I did not hear directly from the ACLU about their concerns prior to receiving a request for a response from you. I am looking into the issues regarding student access to various sites mentioned in the letter you sent me and am certainly willing to visit with ACLU representatives to hear their concerns and determine what, if any, actions need to be taken. We respect the diversity of the students and families who make up the eStem schools and will address any instances that might create a perception otherwise.

UPDATE II: Khayyam Eddings, an attorney for the Little Rock District, responded in a way that suggests corrective action might be in the offing:

This morning, I have communicated with the ACLU's staff attorney Holly Dickson regarding this issue and assured her that the District's Technology Committee would address it during its next regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, June 2, 2011. I also informed her that I would speak with Dr. Holmes in the interim regarding this issue. Ms. Dickson was satisfied, for now, with the proposed course of action.

How hard would it be for either to say: "If students are being denied access to useful information on sexuality, we'll fix it."

The full ACLU release follows.

LITTLE ROCK — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arkansas sent letters today to the Little Rock School District and eStem Public Charter Schools demanding that the schools cease viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The organization has sent demand letters to school districts across the country as part of the organization’s national “Don’t Filter Me” initiative, which seeks to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.

The campaign asked students to check to see if web content geared toward LGBT communities — a frequent target of censorship in schools — is blocked by their schools’ web browsers, and then report instances of censorship to the ACLU LGBT Project.

Teachers in Little Rock School District say that the filtering of LGBT-related content harms students and conflicts with schools’ education mission.

“Of course we need to prevent students from getting to sexually provocative material on the web, but we shouldn’t be in the business of blocking reputable websites because they contain gay content that isn’t sexual in nature,” said Erica Ivy, a teacher at McClellan Magnet High School. “How are we supposed to help students grow to be informed, aware citizens when our schools rule out an entire category of information without just cause?”

“As an educator, I know that many students don’t have computers at home, or live in homes where it would be dangerous for them to try to look up any sort of LGBT information, even suicide prevention information,” said Marshall Sladyen, High Schools That Work and Smaller Learning Communities Coordinator at Hall High School. “All of our students should have equal access at school to age-appropriate information that can help them do things like research a paper for class, find support or learn about their legal rights.”

“It’s simply unconstitutional for schools to pick and choose which points of view they’ll let students have access to, but that’s exactly what both the Little Rock School District and eStem Public Charter Schools have been doing,” said Holly Dickson, staff attorney of the ACLU of Arkansas. “They’ve been allowing access to abstinence websites and harmful so-called “reparative therapy sites, but not legitimate sites with appropriate information for LGBT youth and their allies. It is completely unacceptable.”

Although the Little Rock School District and eStem use different filtering software, they both have inappropriately activated a specific filter to target LGBT content. The Little Rock School District has activated a feature on software provided by Fortiguard to block all websites categorized as “Homosexuality.” eStem has configured its software from M86 to block websites categorized as “Lifestyle.” These anti-LGBT filters can be removed without impairing the schools' ability to block pornographic or sexually explicit content as required by federal law.

“We are seeing a pattern across the country in which school districts have enabled anti-LGBT filters without understanding how they work,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “Software companies need to make schools understand that these products are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as inappropriate, and that these types of filters are not required by law. There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using a web filter that’s designed to discriminate.”

When used by a public school, 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. This means that gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must have the same access to national organizational websites that help them to function, just as other groups such as the Key Club and the chess club are able to access their national websites. By blocking access to LGBT websites, schools deny helpful information to gay-straight alliances and other 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.

A video showing students how to test whether or not their school is illegally filtering content and providing instructions for reporting censorship can be seen here: www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/dont-filter-me

Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out a form at: action.aclu.org/dontfilterme

More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools

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