ACLU Continues Nat’l Campaign Against Anti-Gay Web Filters in Schools
Schools around the country that have web filters in place to block student access to web sites offering information and non-pornographic content have heard from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Yale Law School.
Some schools enable anti-gay sites even as they block access to sites where students can view nonsexual GLBT-themed content. One such school was Vineland High School in Vineland, New Jersey, according to Fox News.com.
Students at that school were unable to see sites belonging to the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for GLBT legal equality, and the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network, which works for safer school environments. But according to one student, Justin Rodriguez, the block did not extend to sites that excoriate gays.
Vineland High School lifted the block after students complained to the ACLU, which launched its national "Don’t Filter Me" campaign on Feb. 15.
"The ACLU has contacted school districts across the country to demand that they stop illegally censoring LGBT-related websites," text at www.aclu.org says.
The rights organization put schools in four other states on notice, an April 11 posting at the ACLU site reported, saying that the group had sent "schools in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia demanding they stop viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
"Another school in New Jersey has voluntarily removed its anti-LGBT filter after receiving student complaints and an open records request from the ACLU," the text added, evidently referring to Vineland.
The ACLU’s site includes a national color-coded map and posts instructions to students on how to see whether their own schools are blocking access to age-appropriate sites.
Schools in Prince William Country, Virginia, were among those reported to the ACLU. Those schools received letters from the watchdog organization, local newspaper the Greene County Record reported on April 12.
"Under the First Amendment right to free speech and the Equal Access Act, gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups should have access to national organizational websites that help them to function, just as other groups, such as Key Clubs and the chess clubs, are able to access their national websites," the ACLU’s letters informed school officials.
"In Prince William it’s absolutely clear that the LGBT websites are being blocked, and that whatever filtering system they’re using actually allows through anti-LGBT websites," said ACLU spokesperson Kent Willis.
"That kind of blatant viewpoint discrimination by the government is both unconstitutional and an affront to every LGBT student in Prince William public schools," Willis continued. "The Equal Access Act, passed in the 1990s, made it clear that students could form clubs and that schools could not discriminate against those clubs based on viewpoint."
Schools in the Goose Creek school district in Texas also received the letters, noted Houston Press.com on April 12. In one case, a student was unable to research the recent Chick-Fil-A controversy because filtering software blocked results from a Google search. Instead, a "demeaning and stigmatizing message" appeared, telling the user that material of "Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual interest" was being blocked.
Another site students were denied was associated with the It Gets Better campaign, in which celebrities and ordinary citizens alike create videos to tell their stories and encourage GLBT youth not to give in to despair and commit suicide. Many gay teens face rejection and harassment at school, and some even face rejection from their own families.
"There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter," the ACLU’s Joshua Block told the press. "This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites," added Block, who is part of the group’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project.
"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."
"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 when the Don’t Filter Me campaign kicked off in February. "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," an ACLU release noted at the time. "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."
America’s GLBT students, empowered by media and social attention to the emotional health risks faced by GLBT youth, have begun to advocate forcefully on their own behalf, reported The News Tribune on April 12.
President Obama has spoken out against bullying, but a contingent of GBT students headed to Washington, D.C., recently to ensure that lawmakers heard their stories and their concerns, the article said.
"It’s really amazing to see how a group of people who have been so oppressed for so many years is finally taking a stand for themselves," said bisexual high school student Maggie Davidson, 15, who was one of the 40 students who gathered in the nation’s capital from 29 states to meet with lawmakers one-on-one and voice their support for federal anti-bullying legislation.
"This is important to me because I think that schools should be a place where all kids feel safe," added Davidson. "The number one priority of a school should be to provide kids with an education, and nothing should get in the way of that."
The Obama Administration has taken steps to protect GLBT and other bullied youths, the article said. U.S. Department of Education cited existing civil rights legislation in warning public schools that they could face both prosecution and a loss of federal money if they don’t implement measures to prevent bullying.
GLBT students have brought suit in recent years against schools where they have suffered harassment and even physical attack--and not only from their fellow students. In some cases, the bullies have been school staff members, as allegedly happened in Minnesota, when two teachers tag-teamed to target and humiliate a student with anti-gay jibes--even though he was heterosexual. The Anoka-Hennepin school district ended up paying out $25,000 in a settlement with the student.
Students beyond America also face anti-gay attitudes from schools. A high school in Auckland, New Zealand, refused to allow the formation of a gay-straight alliance, which is a club open to youths of all sexual orientations, designed to promote acceptance. Another high school simply denied that any of its students were GLBT, the New Zealand Herald reported on April 12.
According to Vaughan Meneses, the manager of OutLine NZ, a hotline for GLBT youth, one desperate teen phoned in and related how his school "blocked [students] from having a support group simply because they were for gay and lesbian students, while at the same time they let students form Christian, Muslim and Maori groups."
Meneses said that such responses were commonplace in New Zealand schools, particularly boarding schools, where students sleep together in dormitories. "But there are lots of parents with dead children who really wish something had been done," Meneses noted.