Settlement reached in Camden Co. LGBT web-filtering case

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday it has settled a lawsuit with a central Missouri school district whose Internet filtering software was blocking access to nonsexual websites about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

The ACLU said the Camdenton R-III School District has agreed to stop blocking the sites, submit to monitoring for 18 months to confirm compliance and pay $125,000 in legal fees and costs. Joshua Block, the staff attorney for the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project, said the Camdenton school board has approved the consent agreement that was filed with the court Wednesday, where it is awaiting a judge’s signature.

As part of a national campaign, the ACLU sued the district last summer in federal court in Jefferson City on behalf of organizations whose websites had been blocked. The blocked organizations include the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Block said no one want to expose schoolchildren to sexually explicit content. He said the problem was the Camdenton district used filtering software to block purely educational sites.

“Our allegations were never that the school from Day One put this system in place with the premeditated desire to discriminate,” Block said. “But once the censorship was brought to their attention, we allege that they did refuse to fix it because they didn’t want to be sort of accused of making gay websites more available.”

However, the district’s attorney, Thomas Mickes, said he thought the district eventually would have prevailed but that continuing to fight the lawsuit would cost “a ton of money.”

“I think public education should operate in what is in the best interest of children and not to cave into demands to avoid lawsuits when what you are doing is in the best interest of kids,” Mickes said. “I think the Camdenton school district showed a great deal of courage, the school board, the administration.”

The district’s case took a hit last month when U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey issued a preliminary injunction, barring the district from using Internet filtering software to restrict access to educational LGBT sites.

Central to the case was the district’s use of URLBlacklist.com to categorize websites in combination with software the district customized. URLBlacklist.com took steps last month to re-categorize sites, but before the changes took effect it had been placing many sites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals into its “sexuality” category, which Camdenton blocks. Laughrey noted sites expressing a negative view toward LGBT individuals fell into the “religion” category, which Camdenton does not block.

The Camdenton School District allows students or employees to submit a request for access to a blocked website. School officials then view the site and decide whether to override the filtering service.

Laughrey had said in granting the preliminary injunction that the system doesn’t go far enough because it “stigmatizes, or at least burdens, websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals.”

There was no immediate response to an email sent to URLBlacklist.com and no phone number was listed on the site. However, there was an apology posted on the site last month, noting efforts were being made to remove sites that had been incorrectly categorized as sexual and reduce the likelihood of the “mistake” in the future.

The ACLU first addressed the issue of web filtering 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 schools are continuing to block LGBT sites, prompting the national 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.

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