ACLU of Georgia to Gwinnett school system: quit filtering LGBT websites to students

The ACLU of Georgia is urging the Gwinnett County Public School System to stop filtering LGBT websites from students or face possible legal action.

“We have received complaints that Gwinnett County Public Schools has recently activated the ‘LGBT’ filter on software provided by Blue Coat. The ‘LGBT’ filter is designed to discriminate against LGBT viewpoints and does not serve a legitimate pedagogical purpose,” states the May 23 letter to Gwinnett Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and signed by Chara Fisher Jackson, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, and Joshua Block, ACLU staff attorney based in New York.

The letter also requested Wilbanks and the school system to respond by May 30.

“Regardless of whether the ‘LGBT’ filter was activated deliberately or unintentionally, your continued use of the ‘LGBT’ filter violates the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act,” the ACLU letter further states.

Late today, the Gwinnett County School System issued a statement in response to the letter:

“We have received the letter from the ACLU and are looking into the concerns raised. Following guidelines from CIPA (Children’s Internet Protection Act), the school system does filter internet content. That said, if a student or employee needs access to a site for a legitimate instructional or work purpose they can make a request for that access,” said Jorge Quintana, spokesperson for GCPS.

The ACLU of Georgia has not yet returned calls from the GA Voice.

The letter from the ACLU states students have been blocked access to websites for the “It Gets Better Project,” the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), GSA Network, and the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

“If you continue to censor these websites, you could be subject to legal liability and the expense of litigation,” the ACLU of Georgia states in the letter.

‘Access denied’

The letter includes exhibits that students shared with the ACLU of Georgia showing “access denied” messages when trying to get the named websites. Specific schools were not named in the letter.

“Allowing students equal access to LGBT-related websites is not just a legal duty; it also makes sense from a safety perspective, particularly in light of the epidemic of LGBT youth suicides and bullying,” states the ACLU of Georgia letter.

“Prohibiting access to LGBT websites is especially problematic because many students do not have computers or internet access at home and can access the internet only at school. We wish to emphasize that unblocking individual LGBT-related websites upon request is not an appropriate solution to this problem,” the letter continues.

“It is unfair and burdensome to force students to seek special permission every time they wish to access a website that reflects LGBT-related viewpoints when, in contrast, students may freely access other viewpoints without seeking such permission. Such unequal burdens violate the Equal Access Act and the First Amendment.

“Moreover, in the particular context of LGBT-related websites, requiring students to make individualized requests is especially harmful and counterproductive because it would force some LGBT students to risk ‘outing’ themselves by requesting that a website be unblocked. There is no reason why the burden should be placed on a vulnerable population to affirmatively request that school administrators unblock websites for LGBT-resources that they already have a legal right to access.”

ACLU ‘Don’t Filter Me’ campaign started in February

The ACLU began its “Don’t Filter Me” campaign in February  that asks students to check their school’s internet access to LGBT websites and, if they are blocked, to report the filtering to the ACLU.

“Students may not realize that it actually is illegal for their schools to block educational and political content geared toward the LGBT community,” said Joshua Block with the ACLU LGBT Project in a press release announcing the campaign.

“With this initiative, we hope to inform students of their rights, and let them know there is something they can do if their school is engaging in censorship,” he added.

The ACLU explains that before the Gwinnett County School System installed the Blue Coat software — a filtering software — students were able to access the LGBT websites named. None of the websites contain pornographic materials or are sexually explicit.

According to Blue Coat’s description of each category, the LGBT category is defined 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, bisexual, and transgender sites. This category does not include sites considered sexually gratuitous in nature that would typically fall under the Pornography category.”