ACLU sues Camdenton district over web filtering

KANSAS CITY (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Monday against a Missouri school district as part a national campaign aimed at stopping schools’ Internet filtering software from blocking access to educational websites about gay, lesbian and transgender issues.

The civil rights organization said in a news release that the lawsuit was filed in federal court in Jefferson City against the Camdenton R-III School District in central Missouri on behalf of organizations whose websites are blocked by the filter. Those organizations include the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

The ACLU of Eastern Missouri legal director Tony Rothert said in a news release that every effort had been made to inform the district that its filtering software “illegally denies students access to important educational information and resources on discriminatory grounds.” Rothert added during a telephone interview that the district has unblocked a few websites but that dozens more remain blocked.

Superintendent Tim Hadfield told a local paper last week that the district doesn’t feel its system of filtering Internet sites has violated students’ rights.

“We do specifically block sites that are inappropriate and will continue to do so,” he said.

A phone message that The Associated Press left late Monday afternoon for Hadfield wasn’t immediately returned.

The ACLU first addressed the issue in 2009 when it filed suit over access to LGBT websites in the Knoxville and Nashville school districts in Tennessee.

The districts ultimately agreed to stop using filtering software to block those sites.

Since then, the organization has received numerous complaints that schools are continuing to block LGBT sites, prompting a national campaign, said Joshua Block, the staff attorney for the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project. The lawsuit filed Monday is the first directly tied to that campaign.

The ACLU identified the schools it is contacting by working with the Yale Law School on the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, which asked students to check to see if their schools are blocking content by having them look up LGBT sites.

The ACLU had no problems blocking out sexually explicit content, but said the problem was many schools were using filtering software to block sites that were purely educational. Block has said public schools aren’t allowed to limit access just because they disagree with a group’s viewpoint.

Rothert said several districts contacted as part of the recent campaign have changed their filtering settings.

“Most districts didn’t know their software was discriminating and when it was brought to their attention they were pleased to fix it,” Rothert said during the phone interview.

He said it was his preference that the Camdenton school district made changes voluntarily as well, but that the organization was willing to go to court.

“Certainly it does take people refusing to comply with the law to create precedent,” he said. “I guess that’s the good thing about this.”

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