COLUMBUS - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Ohio urged Columbus City School officials to stop censorship of web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The ACLU has sent similar letters to schools 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 asks students to check to see if their schools’ web browsers block LGBT web content, and then report instances of censorship to the ACLU LGBT Project.
“Filters were designed to keep students from accessing pornographic or adult material on school computers, but this technology censors much more,” said ACLU of Ohio Staff Counsel Carrie Davis. “Students are prevented from accessing material such as instructions on creating a gay-straight alliance, support for students questioning their sexuality, and support for friends and family of LGBT students. In an age where many young people experience bullying and harassment, this information could be life-saving.”
Since launching the “Don’t Filter Me” initiative, the ACLU has identified several web-filter companies whose products are designed to filter out LGBT websites. The Websense software used by Columbus City Schools in Ohio, has a filter called “Gay r Lesbian or Bisexual Issues.”
Earlier this year, the North Kansas City School District unblocked websites identified by the ACLU and removed the filter that screened the sites out in the first place after a student reported illegal filtering. Another school in New Jersey voluntarily removed its anti-LGBT filter after receiving student complaints and an open records request from the ACLU.
“There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites. These filters are designed to discriminate and are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or inappropriate. Public schools have a duty to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”
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 do not have access to the Internet at home or do not feel safe accessing such information on their home computers.
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools.