Oroville, CA – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Northern California contacted the Oroville Unified School District today to alert the school district that its Internet filtering software has been improperly configured to block access to web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities. The organization has sent demand letters to school districts across the country as part of the organization's national "Don't Filter Me" initiative, which seeks to combat illegal censorship of LGBT educational information on public school computer systems.
"I tried to look up ways our gay-straight alliance club could help stop teen suicide, but the websites were blocked. It's really unfair that our school is blocking this information from us," said Melina Zancanella, a junior at Oroville High School and the president of the gay-straight alliance club there. Melina started the gay-straight alliance at her school last year after news stories about LGBT teen suicide.
Software provided by filtering companies frequently includes a specialized filter that is designed specifically to censor LGBT-related materials that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or pornographic. In many cases, schools have enabled an anti-LGBT filter by mistake or without realizing that the filter is not designed to target sexual or pornographic content. The ACLU's "Don't Filter Me" initiative asks students to check to see if educational web content geared toward LGBT communities – a frequent target of censorship in schools – is blocked by their schools' web browsers, and then report instances of censorship to the ACLU LGBT Project.
A filter called "Lifestyle" has been enabled on the filtering software at Oroville Unified School District. Some examples of websites blocked by the "Lifestyle" filter include GSA Network, Campus Pride, Day of Silence, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, the Safe Schools Coalition and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. At the same time, the "Lifestyle" filter does not block access to websites that condemn homosexuality or oppose civil rights for LGBT people, such as the American Family Association, the Family Research Council or People Can Change.
"How many other school districts in California have activated anti-LGBT filters without even realizing it?" said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. "Making sure that students have equal access to LGBT equality information online is an important way that schools can create an environment that teaches respect for differences."
"We are seeing a pattern across the country in which school districts have enabled anti-LGBT filters without understanding how they work," said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. "There is no legitimate reason why public schools should be using a web filter that's designed to discriminate."
When used by a public school, programs that block all LGBT educational content violate First Amendment rights to free speech, as well as the Equal Access Act, which requires equal access to school resources for all extracurricular clubs. This means that gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must have the same access to national organizational websites that help them to function, just as other groups such as the Key Club and the chess club are able to access their national websites. By blocking access to LGBT educational websites, schools deny helpful information to gay-straight alliances and other support groups that could be vital for troubled LGBT youth who either don't have access to the Internet at home or do not feel safe accessing such information on their home computers.
A video showing students how to test whether or not their school is illegally filtering content and providing instructions for reporting censorship can be seen here: www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/dont-filter-me
More information on the ACLU's work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools
ACLU Letter to School District (May 18, 2011)
Blog Post: Don't Filter Me (Feb. 15, 2011)