NEW YORK -- Lightspeed Systems, which produces software used for website filtering in thousands of public schools across the U.S., confirmed today that it will update its software to remove a filter that blocked websites with content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The company made the announcement after the American Civil Liberties Union sent demand letters to school districts using the software as part of the organization's national "Don't Filter Me" initiative, which seeks to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.
"Lightspeed Systems should be commended for responding quickly and responsibly to fix a problem that we have seen in school districts across the county," said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. "Websites should not be singled out for special treatment by public schools simply because they contain LGBT content. Educational websites addressing LGBT history should be treated similarly to other history websites, and websites urging support for the rights of LGBT people should be treated similarly to other political websites. Lightspeed's new categories will ensure that all public school students have viewpoint-neutral access to important online resources."
Lightspeed's filtering software included a category called "education.lifestyles" that blocked access to educational LGBT-related information that is not sexually explicit in any way. The ACLU discovered that public schools across the country had improperly activated the "education.lifestyles" filter and blocked access to sites such as the Gay Straight Alliance Network; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and the official website for the annual Day of Silence to protest anti-LGBT bullying. Many schools activated the filter in the mistaken belief that it blocked sexually explicit content.
In an email to clients, Lightspeed announced that it would discontinue the "education.lifestyles" filter starting May 23. According to the email, "The sites that are currently in the education.lifestyles category will now be placed in the broader society, society.politics, education.history or education.social science categories. These changes are intended to properly categorize the sites by their content, without regard to their political or moral viewpoint."
As part of its "Don't Filter Me" campaign, the ACLU has identified five other companies with filters that are designed to target LGBT-related content:
- Blue Coat, which has a filter called "LGBT."
- M86, which has a filter called "Lifestyle."
- Fortiguard, which has a filter called "Homosexuality."
- Websense, which has a filter called "Gay or Lesbian or Bisexual Interest."
- URL Blacklist, which has a filter called "sexuality."
"We hope that other filtering companies follow Lightspeed's lead and remove anti-LGBT filters, which are designed to discriminate against LGBT content," said Block. "Schools buy web-filtering software in order to protect their students and comply with the law, but when filtering companies sell anti-LGBT filters to a public school, they are exposing the school to legal liability. At the very least, filter companies have a responsibility to make sure schools understand that these products engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and are designed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as inappropriate."
When used by a public school, 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. This means that gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must have the same access to national organizational websites that help them to function, just as other groups such as the Key Club and the chess club are able to access their national websites. By blocking access to LGBT websites, schools deny helpful information to gay-straight alliances and other 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.
A video showing students how to test whether or not their schools are illegally filtering content and providing instructions for reporting censorship can be seen here: http://www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/dont-filter-me
Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out a form at: action.aclu.org/dontfilterme