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ACLU Continues Push Against Anti-Gay Filters on School Computers

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday May 26, 2011
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The ACLU has intervened at a California school where students were blocked from accessing sites addressing GLBT issues, while filters continued to allow access to sites opposing GLBTs, reported local newspaper the Oroville Mercury-Register on May 26.

"It’s a problem we’re hearing about all around the country," Elizabeth Gill, a lawyer with the San Francisco branch of the ACLU, told the newspaper. "For that reason, the ACLU set up a Don’t Filter Me initiative, seeking to combat illegal censorship of LGBT information at schools."

A Feb. 15 ACLU press release describes the initiative, which the ACLU undertook in partnership with Yale university earlier this year.

"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--is blocked by their schools’ web browsers. Students can report instances of censorship to the ACLU LGBT Project," the release says.

"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."

The ACLU has an online form where students can report illegal denial of access to appropriate online resources. The new program is part of the ACLU’s work to promote safer schools and counter LGBT harassment and bullying.

In the current case, the Bay Area’s Oroville High School reportedly had filters in place that prevented students from accessing fact-based, age-appropriate information and other GLBT-related content, though other sites containing "opposing viewpoints" about gays were not similarly blocked.

A 16-year-old student at the school, Melina Zancanella, discovered the filter when she attempted to access information pertinent to the gay-straight alliance she established at the school, the newspaper reported.

"I wasn’t able to see helpful, pro-gay stuff for kids to be able to see, but could see sites that said ’God hates gays,’ and another one that said ’people can change,’ " the student told the media.

A media spotlight on the problem of GLBT youth suicide was one reason the student founded the alliance. A rash of media stories focused on gay youths who had been bullied at school and killed themselves brought national attention to the subject last year.

"I didn’t want that to happen here," Zancanella told the press.

"Gill said the filter violates students’ free speech by discriminating on viewpoints," the article reported. "It also violates the students’ equal access by allowing only one viewpoint."

Gill also said that there was no law forcing schools to let students have access to the Internet at all. "But the schools are providing it, and in a discriminatory way," the ACLU attorney noted. "There is no legitimate reason why public schools should be using web filters that are designed to discriminate."

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 that 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.

An article on filters at NetSafeKids takes into consideration another unintended consequence of using filters. "The use of filters doesn’t allow children, including older adolescents, the opportunity to develop their own decision-making skills, which are what children rely on when they surf away from home," the site warns.

The ACLU has sent a number of letters to schools reported to have such filters on computers used by students. The civil rights watchdog sent a letter to the Oroville Union High School District after Zancanella contacted them, and the filters came down at the high school.

"Since this has come to light, we have taken the appropriate steps to have BCOE change the filter so those materials can be viewed by students," the school district’s Corey Willenburg told the Oroville Mercury-Register.

"From the district’s point of view, we weren’t given any opportunity to act before we got the letter from the ACLU. It was the first we heard," Willenburg added. "We’re trying to protect the children and control content they see," went on to say, explaining that the intention was not to infringe upon free speech, but to prevent students from viewing pornography.

"We’re not trying to censor anything," Willenburg added. "We want parents to rest easy knowing the content students are using is for educational purposes."

"Kids deserve to be safe," Zancanella agreed. "They’re in a confusing time, there’s nowhere to go. The Internet brings you the information you need."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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