ACLU files suit against 2 Tenn. school districts for filtering pro-LGBT Web sites

TENNESSEE — One Tennessee school district being sued forblocking access to Web sites with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendercontent while allowing students to view anti-gay sites has unfiltered thecontent this week.

James McIntyre, superintendent of Knox County Schools, told the Board ofEducation on Wednesday he changed the district’s filter setting to allowaccess to LGBT content.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee filed suit onMay 19 against two school districts for preventing students from viewing sitesthat “provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater toone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

But access was not restricted to sites that encourage the “transitionout of unwanted homosexual attractions” and others which claim to expose”the homosexual activist agenda.”

The ACLU is representing three high school students and a high schoollibrarian in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District ofTennessee.

Both defendants — the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools inNashville, Tenn., and Knox County Schools in Knoxville, Tenn. — usesoftware that allows officials to chose select categories to block, includingone for “LGBT” content.

The suit claims the filtering is unconstitutional.

“This isn’t just censorship; it’s viewpointdiscrimination,” said Catherine Crump, ACLU First Amendment Working Groupstaff attorney and the case’s lead attorney.

The ACLU’s lawsuit is not over after McIntyre’s action, Crumpsaid.

“No one from either school district has contacted us to saythey’ve stopped censoring the pro-gay Web sites,” she said.

And of Tennessee’s 137 school districts, 105 use the same filteringsoftware, making it “highly probable that all of those schools areblocking access to those sites,” Crump said.

Earlier this year, a Tennessee student looking for scholarships for gaystudents discovered he could not access many of those Web sites, including pagesfor national advocacy groups. Students cannot view online resources from groupslike Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and Human RightsCampaign.

Plaintiff Karyn Storts-Brinks, a Fulton High School librarian who advisesthe school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, said this was not a filter flaw — the districts were censoring anything that LGBT issues in a”remotely positive light.”

“It became apparent that there was a real inequity,” shesaid.

Under Tennessee law, schools must filter the Internet for certain contentincluding pornography. The Nashville and Knox districts already censor sites onthe basis of pornography, social networking and illegal activity.

And under the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, publicschools that receive government funding must have active Internet filters.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, notedpublic schools couldn’t avoid liability for the unconstitutional censoringby using a filtering company.

“What makes this more sinister is it sounds like they picked aside,” Goldstein said. “It looks like the filters are meant to bebiased.”

The Tennessee districts have a “fundamental misunderstanding of theFirst Amendment,” Crump said.

“Even people who may disagree with the ACLU’s support of gayrights generally understand that we live in a country dedicated to the freeexchange of ideas,” she added. “It violates the rules of fair playto block access to people advocating one side of the debate and to allow theother people to speak.”

Storts-Brinks said she hopes other districts will “recognize thatequity of information is an issue you can’t take for granted.”

On Thursday morning, Storts-Brinks was able to access the sites from herschool computer after McIntyre unfiltered the content.

“You have to make sure that students have access to the breadth ofinformation and the entirety of the public discourse that they deserve tohave,” she added.

Officials from both districts did not return calls for comment.

UPDATE: As of Thursday afternoon, the filtering company serving the districts changed its software to allow access to many of the LGBT Web sites, Rachel Myers of the ACLU said. But the ACLU has not dropped the lawsuit; they are waiting for official confirmation from districts that access is restored and students’ rights will not be violated in the future, she said. 6/3/2009/ 5:05 p.m.