The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee sued two Tennessee school districts in federal court today, charging the schools are unconstitutionally blocking students from accessing online information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Knox County Schools and as many as 105 other school districts in Tennessee use Internet filtering software to block Web sites containing pro-LGBT speech, but not Web sites touting so-called "reparative therapy" and "ex-gay" ministries. The "LGBT" filter is not used to block sites containing pornography, which are filtered under a different category, but it does block the sites of many well-known LGBT organizations including Parents, Families And Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
"Allowing access to Web sites that present one side of an issue while blocking sites that present the other side is illegal viewpoint discrimination," said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group and lead attorney on the case. "This discriminatory censorship does nothing to make students safe from material that may actually be harmful, but only hurts them by making it impossible to access important educational material."
The school districts block the Internet filtering category designated "LGBT," which includes sites that "provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater [sic] to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity." They do not, however, block sites that condemn homosexuality or promote "reparative therapy," a practice purporting to "cure" LGBT people that is denounced as dangerous and harmful to young people by such groups as the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association.
The ACLU filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee against Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Knox CountySchools on behalf of two high school students in Nashville, one student in Knoxville and a high school librarian in Knoxville who is also the advisor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
"Students need to be able to access information about their legal rights or what to do if they’re being harassed at school," said Keila Franks, a 17-year-old student at Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville and a plaintiff on the case. "It’s completely unfair for schools to keep students in the dark about such important issues and treat Web sites that just offer information like they’re something dirty."
The lawsuit charges that blocking LGBT sites violates students’ First Amendment rights by only allowing access to sites that present an anti-gay point of view on the rights of LGBT persons on issues such as anti-gay harassment, marriage, employment discrimination and the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy while blocking access to sites that support LGBT rights. Further, the filtering hinders the ability of GSAs and their members to facilitate club activities and keeps students from accessing important information about scholarships for LGBT students or doing research for school-related assignments.
The ACLU first learned about the discriminatory filtering from Andrew Emitt, a Knoxville high school student who discovered the problem while trying to search for LGBT scholarships. Internet filtering software is mandated in public schools by Tennessee law, which requires schools to implement software to restrict information that is obscene or harmful to minors. However, the "LGBT" filter category does not include material which is sexually gratuitous and already included in the "pornography" filtering category.
"While schools may have an interest in using filters to block material that could be harmful to minors, blocking access to information about LGBT issues while allowing anti-gay information is unlawful and potentially dangerous," said Tricia Herzfeld, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. "There is no place for this kind of unconstitutional censorship in our public schools."
In addition to Crump and Herzfeld, attorneys on the case are Chris Hansen of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group and Christine Sun of the ACLU LGBT Project.
The plaintiffs are Nashville students Keila Franks and Emily Logan, Knoxville student Bryanna Shelton, and Karyn Storts-Brinks, a Knoxville high school librarian and faculty sponsor for her school’s GSA.
The ACLU’s complaint is available online here.