Cross-posted from Balanced Filtering in Schools.

eSchoolNews’ August 17, 2011 article, “ACLU sues Missouri school district over internet filtering,” provides details about a new lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Camdenton R-III School District in central Missouri. The lawsuit is part of the ACLU’s “Don’t Filter Me” campaign. Camdenton Schools are accused in the lawsuit of prejudicially blocking students’ access to educational websites about gay, lesbian, and transgender issues, while providing access to anti-LGBT sites.

Diagram of school content filtering

According to the ACLU’s August 15th press release:

The lawsuit argues it is discriminatory and unreasonable to require students to ask for permission every time they want to access a new LGBT website when students can freely access anti-LGBT websites.

The press release also reveals Camdenton Schools is using the URL Blacklist for content filtering. According to the ACLU, URL Blacklist:

…has a viewpoint-discriminatory category called “sexuality,” which blocks all LGBT-related information, including hundreds of materials that are not sexually explicit. The filter does, however, allow students to view anti-LGBT sites.

The April 11, 2011 article from the ACLU, “ACLU “Don’t Filter Me” Initiative Finds Schools In Four More States Unconstitutionally Censoring LGBT Websites,” provides more details about which LGBT-related websites are blocked and permitted in some U.S. school districts. The article links to the “Don’t Filter Me: Students, Check Your School’s Web Filter!” page. This campaign asks students at school to check for access to the following five LGBT websites:

  1. Day of Silence: http://dayofsilence.org
  2. It Gets Better Project: http://itgetsbetter.org/
  3. The Trevor Project: http://thetrevorproject.org/
  4. GSA Network: http://gsanetwork.org/
  5. Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network: http://glsen.org/

The campaign also asks students to check if the following “anti-LGBT, ‘pray away the gay’ websites” are accessible or blocked:

  1. National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality: http://narth.com/
  2. People Can Change: http://peoplecanchange.com/
  3. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays: http://pfox.org/

The following video provides an explanation, targeted at students, for how they can help in the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign.

As far as I know, this lawsuit by the ACLU against a school district for over blocking Internet websites is the first of its kind. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires schools and libraries in the United States receiving federal Erate funding have a policy for blocking offensive Internet content and enforce that policy. Schools locally define filtering policies, however. According to the ACLU’s press release:

“School districts cannot use filtering software that discriminates against websites based on their viewpoint,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “This filter was designed to block more than just adult content and is not viewpoint-neutral. There are many other filtering systems available that do not arbitrarily group websites like PFLAG in the same category as adult-oriented websites.”

It is very important for school officials to understand the laws in the United States related to Internet content filtering as well as the importance of not “over blocking” web content. As I’ve written and noted previously, some of our U.S. schools filter Internet content more severely than China. This is a big problem, and should be addressed for a variety of reasons. I started the projects “Balanced Content Filtering in Schools” and “Unmasking the Digital Truth” to help address these issues. I also included an appendix in my July 2011 eBook, “Playing with Media: simple ideas for powerful sharing” on “Balanced Content Filtering in Schools.” The issues here go beyond LGBT website access. In the United States, we ideologically support free expression and the marketplace of ideas. We recognize the need to censor certain kinds of content on the Internet in our schools and libraries, through the CIPA law, but that mandated censorship is still LIMITED. It will be interesting to follow this case and see how this develops. Hopefully one outcome will be more balanced approaches toward content filtering in Camdenton Schools and elsewhere.

For more background about this ACLU campaign, see the March 2011 article in the Yale Herald, “Yale Law goes online for LGBT rights.”

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