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Education Department Must Unblock Public Citizen’s Website, Lawsuit Says

Website Contains Material Critical of Department, Secretary DeVos

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos must stop blocking visitors and employees from accessing Public Citizen’s website through the department’s guest Wi-Fi and internal networks, Public Citizen said in a lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The department’s decision to block access to Public Citizen’s website violates the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act, the complaint (PDF) explains.

Users attempting to access Public Citizen’s website though the department’s wireless networks receive a message that says access is “in violation of your Internet usage policy” and “Category: Advocacy Organization.” The department and DeVos have no legitimate justification for blocking access to Public Citizen’s website and are imposing a viewpoint-based and/or content-based restriction on Public Citizen’s protected speech, in violation of the First Amendment, the complaint alleges.

Public Citizen’s website includes material on a wide range of issues, including information critical of the department and DeVos. For example, in December 2018, Public Citizen released a report titled, “Rewriting the Teach Grant Rules: Lessons from a History of Mismanagement,” which provided a critical analysis of grant-to-loan conversions under the department’s TEACH Grant program. The report found that decisions and errors in the department’s administration of the program contributed to the staggering number of teachers whose educational grants have been erroneously converted to student debt.

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Public Citizen also uses its website to inform the public about litigation, including litigation involving Devos and the department. For example, Public Citizen successfully challenged the department’s delay of a rule to protect students from predatory for-profit colleges. In addition, Public Citizen filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting another rule designed to protect students from exploitation by unethical for-profit colleges.

Filed on behalf of both Public Citizen and a Public Citizen member and board member who regularly attends meetings at the department and uses the guest Wi-Fi network, the lawsuit seeks a court order declaring the department’s and DeVos’ action unlawful and enjoining them from blocking access to Public Citizen’s website on its Wi-Fi and internal networks.

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Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

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