CHARLOTTE — A locally-based, national non-profit group working with LGBT college and university students has joined a lawsuit against a Missouri school district accused of improperly blocking student access to websites with LGBT content.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Charlotte-based Campus Pride, which works to create safer college campuses for LGBT students, and other organizations whose websites have been blocked by the Camdenton R-III School District in Camdenton, Mo. a town approximately three hours west of St. Louis. The other plaintiffs represented in the case include the national PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays), the Matthew Shepard Foundation and DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT organization.
“We have made every effort to inform the school district that its filtering software illegally denies students access to important educational information and resources on discriminatory grounds,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said in a release. “Unfortunately, it will now be up to the courts to compel the district to grant its students viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”
Camdenton’s custom-built filtering software uses a database of website URLs and classifications compiled by URL Blacklist. The company has a viewpoint-neutral category that allows schools and other institutions to block sexually-explicit content, but it also has a “sexuality” category which blocks all LGBT-related information. That filter impedes access to non-explicit LGBT resources, though websites with anti-LGBT viewpoints are allowed.
“School districts cannot use filtering software that discriminates against websites based on their viewpoint,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “This filter was designed to block more than just adult content and is not viewpoint-neutral. There are many other filtering systems available that do not arbitrarily group websites like PFLAG in the same category as adult-oriented websites.”
Campus Pride Executive Director Shane Windmeyer said the illegal censorship of his website and others unfairly discriminates against LGBT youth.
“Finding a LGBT-friendly college and learning about valuable LGBT services on campuses should not be blocked for any reason. Every young person should have access in their schools to such online information provided by Campus Pride, especially those seeking safer, more welcoming places to learn, live and grow,” Windmeyer said in a statement. “Our online resources are essential in delivering a message of hope and support — and in changing the lives of LGBT and ally young people.”
The ACLU notified the Missouri school district in May that its filtering software had unconstitutionally blocked access to four websites with anti-bullying information and other resources for student gay-straight alliances. Though the district took steps to unblock those websites, it refused to take further action in solving its broader censorship problem. As a result, hundreds of other LGBT websites remain blocked.
The ACLU’s suit argues that it is discriminatory and unreasonable to require students to ask for permission every time they want to access a new LGBT website when students can freely access anti-LGBT websites.