JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – A rural school district uses Internet filtering software that blocks access to websites promoting gay, lesbian and transgender issues, but allows students access to gay-bashing websites, four gay and lesbian activist groups claim in Federal Court.
Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); DignityUSA; the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Campus Pride sued the Camdenton R-III School District and its superintendent on constitutional claims. Camdenton is about 190 miles southwest of St. Louis.
The plaintiffs say they do not object to the district’s blocking access to pornographic websites, but that that’s not the issue. They say the school district’s custom-made software that blacklists websites according to “sexuality” is overly broad.
“The ‘sexuality’ category is not designed to capture websites based on the websites’ pornographic content,” the complaint states. “Rather, the ‘sexuality’ category is designed to capture all websites ‘dedicated to sexuality,’ regardless of whether the websites are sexually explicit in any way.”
The groups claim the “sexuality” filter blocks access to their websites, which are not pornographic.
Camdenton unblocked four websites at the request of an ACLU attorney, but the plaintiff say their rights will continue to be violated until the school changes its filter.
“As a result of the viewpoint-based ‘sexuality’ filter, students at Camdenton R-III may access a wide range of websites about child-rearing and family life that condemn homosexuality as being incompatible with traditional family values and encourage gay people to change their sexual orientation, but may not access the websites of plaintiff PFLAG and other groups that advocate in support of families that love and accept LGBT people,” the complaint states.
“As a result of the viewpoint-based ‘sexuality’ filter, students at Camdenton R-III may access a wide range of websites with religious viewpoints that condemn homosexuality from a religious perspective, but may not access the websites of plaintiff DignityUSA and other groups that use a religious perspective to advocate for acceptance and support of LGBT people.
“As a result of the viewpoint-based ‘sexuality’ filter, students at Camdenton R-III
may access a wide range of websites devoted to young people that condemn homosexuality and attempt to convince young people that God intended that marriage be only between a man and a woman, but may not access the websites of plaintiffs Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride, and other groups that advocate for acceptance and support of LGBT youth and LGBT student rights.
“The district’s unblocking of specific websites upon request is inadequate to protect plaintiffs’ free speech rights. URL Blacklist is revised and updated on a continuing basis, and, as a result, new pages and new content will likely be blacklisted and blocked in the future. Plaintiffs’ right to publish their viewpoints without their messages being selectively blocked by the District on a viewpoint-discriminatory basis can be protected only by the district either unblocking the ‘sexuality’ category or changing to a more accurate and reputable Internet filtering service.
“Furthermore, requiring plaintiffs and other organizations with pro-LGBT websites to make requests with the district for their websites to be unblocked places a burden on plaintiffs’ speech that is not placed on anti-LGBT websites. The result is a prior restraint for the pro-LGBT viewpoint but not the anti-LGBT viewpoint.”
The plaintiffs say their websites provide a valuable service and reference for students, especially those in rural communities such as Camdenton.
“Useful resources for LGBT and questioning youth are fairly scarce, especially in rural areas, even though the population in need of such resources is widely dispersed geographically,” the complaint states. “In the Foundation’s judgment, providing these resources online is the only cost effective and geographically widespread approach that guarantees equal access opportunities.”
The plaintiffs want the school district enjoined from using its Internet filter, as it violates their right to free speech.
The complaint is the first tied to a national campaign by the ACLU to prompt school districts from blocking such websites, the Associated Press reported.
The ACLU took on the issue in 2009 when it filed a similar complaint against the Knoxville and Nashville school districts in Tennessee.
Those districts eventually agreed to stop using the filtering software in question.
The plaintiffs are represented by Elizabeth Blackwell with Thompson Coburn, and by Anthony Rothert with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, in St. Louis.