The American Civil Liberties Union sued two Tennessee school districts in federal court yesterday, claiming that the districts' Internet filters unconstitutionally block students from accessing Web sites focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
The suit alleges that the filtering software used by the districts blocks access to Web sites specializing in LGBT policy issues, including the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network and Human Rights Campaign. In contrast, the suit notes, students are able to access Web sites that condemn homosexuality or advocate "reparative therapy" programs that attempt to change a person's sexual orientation.
"We hope the school districts will unblock LGBT sites," Catherine Crump, the ACLU attorney serving as counsel to the plaintiffs, told me via email. "We're not asking them to remove the filters altogether. This is not a case about porn. The school districts already block pornography, and we're not challenging that. What is at issue here is whether schools can block pro- but not anti-LGBT websites. We think they can't. That's viewpoint discrimination and it's not allowed under the First Amendment."
Olivia Brown, a spokeswoman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, responded by saying that the district "has a contract with an outside vendor to provide Internet filtering services," but would not comment further, as the district's legal department had just received the lawsuit and was reviewing the matter.
Keila Franks, one of the student plaintiffs in the case, told me that she initially contacted the ACLU after a friend of hers told her that LGBT websites were not accessible at her school. "These Web sites definitely shouldn't be blocked just because they promote acceptance and tolerance for gay people," she said. "If a lawsuit is necessary to bring those changes about, then it's important that the lawsuit take place."
Franks also said that her classmates are supportive of her decision to press the issue in court. "My friends believe that I'm standing up for what's right. They don't believe that it's fair that these websites are being blocked, and they're proud that I'm actually doing something about it."
Filtering Internet access at schools is a common practice, particularly within districts that receive federal Internet access subsidies known as the E-Rate program. The federal law known as the Children's Internet Protect Act requires schools receiving such funding to utilize a "technology protection measure" to prevent students from accessing obscene or harmful materials, but Crump argued that the law doesn't apply in this particular case. "Schools that receive E-Rate funding are only required to filter obscenity, child pornography, and certain other sexually explicit materials," she said. "The Tennessee schools are blocking access to the sites of civil rights organizations that advocate for the fair treatment of LGBT persons. Federal law does not require the blocking of this valuable information."
Along with Keila Franks, the lawsuit has been filed on behalf of three other students and Knoxville High School librarian Karyn Storts-Brinks. "They need to have access to these resources without having to come out to an adult before they're ready," Storts-Brinks told KnoxNews.com. "Not having access to that kind of information can be very frustrating. As educators, we do everything we can to ensure that they don't reach that level of frustration."