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ACLU Demands Tennessee Schools Stop Censoring Gay Educational Websites
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - As many as 107 Tennessee public school districts could be illegally
preventing students from accessing online information about lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgender issues, according to a letter to sent to
school officials by the American Civil Liberties Union. The letter
demands that Knox County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and
the Tennessee Schools Cooperative unblock the Internet filtering
category designated "LGBT" so that students can access political and
educational information about LGBT issues on school computers.
"When I found out about this web filtering software, I wasn't
looking for anything sexual or inappropriate - I was looking for
information about scholarships for LGBT students, and I couldn't get to
it because of this software," said Andrew Emitt, a 17-year-old senior
at Central High School in Knoxville. "Our schools shouldn't be keeping
students in the dark about LGBT organizations and resources."
In its letter, the ACLU gives the districts and the Tennessee
Schools Cooperative until April 29 to come up with a plan to restore
access to the LGBT sites or any other category that blocks non-sexual
websites advocating the fair treatment of LGBT people by the beginning
of the 2009-2010 school year. If that deadline is not met, the ACLU
will file a lawsuit.
"Students at Knox County and Metro Nashville schools are being
denied access to content that is protected speech under the First
Amendment as well as the Tennessee state constitution," said Tricia
Herzfeld, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. "This kind of
censorship does nothing but hurt students, whether they're being
harassed at school and want to know about their legal rights or are
just trying to finish an assignment for a class."
The Internet filtering software used by Knox County and Metro
Nashville school districts blocks student access to the websites of
many well-known national LGBT organizations, including:
- Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
- The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
- Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
- Marriage Equality USA
- Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry
- The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
- Dignity USA (an organization for LGBT Catholics)
In its demand letter, the ACLU notes that websites that urge LGBT
persons to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through
so-called "reparative therapy" or "ex-gay" ministries - a practice
denounced as dangerous and harmful to young people by such groups as
the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric
Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy
of Pediatrics - can still be easily accessed by students.
"One of the problems with this software is that it only allows
students access to one side of information about topics that are part
of the public debate right now, like marriage for same-sex couples,"
said Karyn Storts-Brinks, a librarian at Fulton High School in
Knoxville, pointing out that the software blocks access to
organizations that support marriage for same-sex couples like the
Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry or the Interfaith Working
Group while allowing access to organizations that oppose marriage
equality. "Students who need to do research for assignments on current
events can only get one viewpoint, keeping them from being able to
cover both sides of the issue. That's not fair and can hinder their
"Public schools are supposed to be a place where students learn from
the open exchange of ideas," said Eric Austin, a senior at Hume-Fogg
High School in Nashville, which also uses the filtering software. "How
are we supposed to be informed citizens and learn how to have
respectful debate when our schools rule out an entire category of
information for no good reason?"
No federal or state law requires school districts to block access to
LGBT sites. Tennessee law, Tenn. Code § 49-1-221, only requires schools
to implement filtering software to restrict information that is obscene
or harmful to minors. About 80 percent of Tennessee public schools,
including those in the Knox County and Metro Nashville districts, use
filtering software provided by Education Networks of America (ENA), and
the software's default setting blocks sites ENA categorizes as LGBT.
The ACLU believes that most of the 107 Tennessee school districts that
use ENA's filtering software keep the LGBT category blocked. ENA blocks
access to a wide category of "LGBT" sites described on the
organization's website as
Sites that provide information regarding, support, promote,
or cater to one's sexual orientation or gender identity including but
not limited to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender sites. This
category does not include sites that are sexually gratuitous in nature
which would typically fall under the Pornography category. Examples:
glsen.org, gsanetwork.org, hrc.org
"When public schools only allow access to one side of an issue by
blocking certain websites, they're engaging in illegal viewpoint
discrimination," said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of
Tennessee. "Over a hundred other school districts in Tennessee use the
same filtering software used in Metro Nashville and Knox County, and
we're eager to find out whether any of those systems are also violating
students' Constitutional rights by restricting access to LGBT sites."
Tennessee students, teachers, or school librarians whose schools use
the ENA web filtering software and find that their access to LGBT
websites is restricted are encouraged to contact the ACLU of Tennessee
by phone at 615-320-7142 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Austin, Emitt, and Storts-Brinks are represented by Herzfeld, Chris
Hansen and Catherine Crump of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group,
and Christine Sun of the ACLU LGBT Project.
A copy of the ACLU's demand letter is available at http://www.aclu.org/lgbt/youth/39346res20090413.html.
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