MISSOURI — Afederal district court ruled Wednesday that a school district likely violatedstudents’ First Amendment rights by intentionally blocking websites supportiveof gays and lesbians.
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and twoother organizations claimed Camdenton School District administratorsintentionally blocked a total of 41 websites based solely on theirLGBT-supportive content, but allowed anti-LGBT websites through the filter.
District Judge Nanette Laughrey granted a preliminaryinjunction, ordering Camdenton to “discontinue, within 30 days, itsInternet-filtering system as currently configured, and any new system must notdiscriminate against websites expressing a positive viewpoint toward LGBTindividuals.”
The filtering software, URL Blacklist, blocked mostLGBT-supportive sites, even if they were not sexually explicit, Laughrey found.Conversely, it categorized most anti-LGBT sites as religious in nature, andtherefore let them through. However, the “sexuality” filter blocked religioussites with positive LGBT messages, like Evangelicals Concerned.
“Obviously, this is a positive step in the direction ofproecting students’ rights to access information on important issues,” said AnnElizabeth Blackwell, an attorney representing PFLAG. “Law around the Internetand access to Internet resources is evolving, so I think this is a gooddecision.”
Superintendent Tim Hadfield said URL Blacklist updated itsprogramming scripts Feb. 10, which “fixed an error” that was blocking non-sexualLGBT websites. Camdenton updated its servers the following day.
“The district was disappointed by the judge’s order,”Hadfield said, “especially in light of the changes that were just made latelast week. We were disappointed those changes weren’t considered.”
The school board has not decided whether to appeal thedecision.
The American Civil Liberties Union wrote to Hadfield twiceto discuss concerns over the filter’s bias. Hadfield unblocked four sites theACLU specifically requested, but he said on the stand he “didn’t take any othersteps to make sure that other LGBT-supportive information would be unblocked.”
The school district claimed it did not intentionallydiscriminate against LGBT-supportive websites, explaining it only adopted URL Blacklistto comply with Children’s Internet Protection Act requirements.
The federal CIPA law requires schools to filter online content that could be“harmful to minors,” such as pornography.
According to Laughrey’s written opinion, school board memberJohn Beckett said at a meeting that he has “concern with students accessingwebsites saying it’s OK to be gay.” He thought the school should requireparental consent before allowing students access to those sites.
The district argued in court that there was no harm done becausethey had a system in place to unblock sites. Blackwell disagreed, explainingthat requiring permission for certain information “is itself a burden onstudents and students’ access to information.”
“It makes the information seem like it’s subject to somelevel of disapproval from the people in charge,” Blackwell added.
Camdenton’s attorneys did not return calls by press time.
In order to request access to a website, students had to gothrough an anonymous review process — which the court found was less anonymousthan the district made it seem.
The review process encouraged students to assign the sameusername to all their requests to unblock sites, which meant the administrationcould potentially decipher who is behind particular requests, Laughrey wrote.Decisions could then be made based on the student, not the content.
“There is little doubt,” Laughrey wrote in her opinion,“that Camdenton can trace any student with a user ID to every request made bythat student if it elects to do so.”
One student, referred to only as Jane Doe in courtdocuments, said she was “afraid” of requesting to access websites because itcould “draw attention to (her) and make (her) the subject of further taunting.”
Laughrey wrote that even if the unblocking process wasanonymous, the program was still discriminatory toward 41 LGBT-supportivesites. PFLAG tested five other filters, finding that none of them blocked anythe same websites.
Though URL Blacklist blocked those pro-LGBT sites based ontheir alleged sexual content, PFLAG found it allowed access to 150 of 500randomly selected pornographic websites. CIPAFilter, a more popular program,allowed access to 16 of those same 500 sites.
Blackwell said she is confident that the case can be appliedto access disputes involving other kinds of content as well.
“The fact that LGBT-supportive ideas and opinion maybe arenot popular in Camdenton, there may be other kinds of ideas that are unpopularin another district,” Blackwell said. “Very little in the case hinges on thenature of the viewpoints being suppressed — just the fact that there’s noreasonable basis.”