Students in more than a hundred Tennessee public school districts are likely to find it difficult to do research online or to gather scholarship information about some of the most prominent LGBT rights groups in the nation.
That’s because as many as 107 school districts could be illegally preventing students from accessing Web sites of gay civil rights groups including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), according to a letter to sent to school officials by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Students at Knox County and Metro Nashville schools are being denied access to content that is protected speech under the First Amendment as well as the Tennessee state constitution,” said Tricia Herzfeld, staff attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. “This kind of censorship does nothing but hurt students, whether they’re being harassed at school and want to know about their legal rights or are just trying to finish an assignment for a class.”
The letter (available here) demands that Knox County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools and the Tennessee Schools Cooperative unblock the Internet filtering category designated “LGBT” so that students can access political and educational information about LGBT issues on school computers.
“When I found out about this web filtering software, I wasn’t looking for anything sexual or inappropriate – I was looking for information about scholarships for LGBT students, and I couldn’t get to it because of this software,” said Andrew Emitt, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School in Knoxville. “Our schools shouldn’t be keeping students in the dark about LGBT organizations and resources.”
In its letter, the ACLU gives the districts and the Tennessee Schools Cooperative until April 29 to come up with a plan to restore access to the LGBT sites or any other category that blocks non-sexual Web sites advocating the fair treatment of LGBT people by the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year. If that deadline is not met, the ACLU will file a lawsuit.
“One of the problems with this software is that it only allows students access to one side of information about topics that are part of the public debate right now, like marriage for same-sex couples,” said Karyn Storts-Brinks, a librarian at Fulton High School in Knoxville, pointing out that the software blocks access to organizations that support marriage for same-sex couples like the Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry or the Interfaith Working Group while allowing access to organizations that oppose marriage equality. “Students who need to do research for assignments on current events can only get one viewpoint, keeping them from being able to cover both sides of the issue. That’s not fair and can hinder their schoolwork.”
In its demand letter, the ACLU notes that Web sites that urge LGBT persons to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through so-called “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay” ministries can still be easily accessed by students. "Reparative therapy" practices have been denounced as dangerous and harmful to young people by such groups as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
About 80 percent of Tennessee public schools, including those in the Knox County and Metro Nashville districts, use filtering software provided by Education Networks of America (ENA), and the software’s default setting blocks sites ENA categorizes as LGBT. The ACLU believes that most of the 107 Tennessee school districts that use ENA’s filtering software keep the LGBT category blocked.
“When public schools only allow access to one side of an issue by blocking certain Web sites, they’re engaging in illegal viewpoint discrimination,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “Over a hundred other school districts in Tennessee use the same filtering software used in Metro Nashville and Knox County, and we’re eager to find out whether any of those systems are also violating students’ Constitutional rights by restricting access to LGBT sites.”
No federal or state law requires school districts to block access to LGBT sites. Tennessee law, Tenn. Code § 49-1-221, only requires schools to implement filtering software to restrict information that is obscene or harmful to minors.ENA blocks access to a wide category of “LGBT” sites described on the organization’s Web site as sites that provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity including but not limited to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender sites. This category does not include sites that are sexually gratuitous in nature which would typically fall under the Pornography category.
Tennessee students, teachers, or school librarians whose schools use the ENA web filtering software and find that their access to LGBT websites is restricted are encouraged to contact the ACLU of Tennessee by phone at 615-320-7142 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Austin, Emitt, and Storts-Brinks are represented by Herzfeld, Chris Hansen and Catherine Crump of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, and Christine Sun of the ACLU LGBT Project.