NEW YORK — Public schools across the country overwhelmingly responded positively to the "Don't Filter Me" campaign to address discriminatory censorship of web content in public schools, the American Civil Liberties Union announced in a report today.
The report chronicles the conclusion of the campaign, which asked students to determine if web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities — a frequent target of censorship in schools — was blocked by their school's web browsers.
The ACLU found that most schools did not realize that, in addition to blocking all sexually explicit websites regardless of sexual orientation, their filtering software also contained a feature to block LGBT-related websites that were not sexually explicit. Students were blocked from accessing anti-bullying resources or websites about the civil rights of LGBT people, but could still access anti-gay websites that condemn homosexuality or oppose legal protections for LGBT people. After being contacted by the ACLU, most schools reconfigured the software so that students could access LGBT-related websites on a viewpoint-neutral basis.
"Public schools aren't looking for software that discriminates," said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. "Schools want filtering software that blocks pornography while still allowing students to access diverse viewpoints and educational resources. They don't need or want software that discriminatorily blocks non-sexual LGBT websites."
The ACLU had to sue one district in order to fix its discriminatory software. That district, in Camdenton, Missouri was ordered by a federal court to reconfigure its software to stop discriminating against LGBT websites. The court held that under the First Amendment, public schools cannot use filtering software that engages in viewpoint discrimination.
The release of the report comes on Banned Websites Awareness Day and in the middle of Banned Books Awareness Week, which draws attention to censorship of literature and online resources in public schools.
"Just as a school library can't censor a book about LGBT people on the shelves, school web filters can't block access to pro-LGBT content online," said Block. "Barring access to all LGBT content sends a harmful message to kids that their school thinks being gay is shameful or inappropriate."
The campaign also prompted software companies to change their web filtering programs. Several software companies simply removed their special LGBT filters from the software and categorized all LGBT-related websites into generally applicable categories such as "history," or "politics." Other companies issued public statements and rewrote their category descriptions to make clear to public schools that the LGBT filters are not recommended for public school customers and do not have to be activated in order to block pornography or sexually explicit content.
Although the campaign is ending, the ACLU has provided a toolkit as an appendix to the report for students to advocate on their own behalves if their school blocks pro-LGBT content. Students are also encouraged to contact their local ACLU offices if their rights are being violated.
The full report can be viewed at: www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/dont-filter-me-final-report.
For more information on the campaign, please visit: www.aclu.org/dont-filter-me-web-content-filtering-schools.