At public schools across the nation, internet filters keep students from looking at pornography and other material deemed harmful. It’s required under a federal law passed more than a decade ago. But now, one rural school district in central Missouri is at the heart of a national legal battle over whether schools may use this law to block websites that promote gay rights.
“Jane Doe” is a plaintiff in the case. The name is a pseudonym, of course. Jane wrote in her affidavit that she had seen her friends get teased, taunted, and called names. “I would like to be able to use computers in the library to access information on the Internet that would help me support my friends, but many websites that are supportive of gay and lesbian people are blocked at my school,” she wrote.
The lawsuit lists almost 40 gay rights and educational groups blocked by the school district, from the Human Rights Campaign to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The organization was founded after the brutal murder of a college freshman that put a national spotlight on homophobia. It’s one of four gay rights groups joining the suit against the Camdenton school district.
Jason Marsden is the foundation’s executive director. “Our websites are not the type of websites that need to be firewalled off.” He said the resources provided by his group and others are life-lines for young people struggling with sexual orientation – especially in rural areas like Camdenton.
Marsden himself grew up gay in a small town in Wyoming. “There was really no information,” he said. “And to my recollection there had never been an openly gay student at my high school, and I didn’t choose to be the first one.”
According to the lawsuit, while the district is blocking sites advocating LGBT rights, it is not blocking sites like peoplecanchange.com. According to the suit, about a dozen organizations like this -- sites that promote so-called “reparative therapy,” or oppose gay rights -- are not being blocked. And that’s what put the school district in the crosshairs of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the plaintiffs.
ACLU lawyer Joshua Block said by shutting out one viewpoint, but not the other, Camdenton is violating students’ First Amendment rights. “Just as you can’t remove books from the library shelf or go through the school encyclopedias and clip out the articles about LGBT rights because you don’t want students to see that, similarly, you can’t censor websites in a viewpoint-based manner,” he said.
Over the past year, the ACLU has sent letters to dozens of school districts across the country, laying out this legal argument. Block said every school district agreed to change their filtering software, except Camdenton.
Tim Hadfield, the school district’s superintendent, responded to the ACLU with a letter of his own. “We did say that we would not at that time remove our filter of sexuality,” he said. But Hadfield said the district is not discriminating.
“We do have pro-gay websites that are allowed. So to say that we allow one point of view and not another, we would disagree with that.” Hadfield says it’s a balancing act, between keeping explicit sites off kids’ computers and protecting First Amendment rights. “We want to uphold the Constitutional rights of our students. At the same time, we strive to be compliant with statute regarding obscene and explicit materials, and keeping those materials away from our students.”
Indeed, removing the “sexuality” filter entirely would let in sites hosting lewd photos of male anatomy, sites selling sex toys, and others offering male “escort services.” Jeremy Tedesco is a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Camdenton school district. “If the ACLU got their way in this case, it would open up tons of pornographic and sexually explicit web sites to students in Camdenton schools,” he said.
So is access to pornography inevitably linked to access to gay rights organizations? The answer may lie in the technical minutiae of filtering software. Most school districts lease the software from companies that are constantly updating databases of blocked sites. Camdenton built its own software, based on free online databases.
Joshua Block at the ACLU: “So our response is, no one is forcing you to use a database you downloaded off the internet. Like almost every other school district in the country, you should be going to a reputable software manufacturer that is capable of telling the difference between the Human Rights Campaign and pornography.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction that would force Camdenton to stop using its current filtering software. In the meantime, “Jane Doe” and her fellow students will have to ask for special permission to access many LGBT-related websites. But that may be harder than it sounds: “I am afraid doing so will draw attention to me and make me the subject of further taunting,” she wrote in her affidavit.
A hearing on the preliminary injunction is expected within the next couple of months.