Prince William school officials agree to remove LGBT web filter in response to ACLU complaint

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Virginia have received confirmation from the Prince William County School Board that it is deactivating web filtering software that blocks students’ access to educational information geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

The school board’s decision came approximately six weeks after the ACLU sent a demand letter as part of the “Don’t Filter Me” program, an ACLU initiative designed to combat unconstitutional censorship of LGBT information on public school computer systems around the country.

Software provided by filtering companies to public schools frequently includes a filter specifically designed to censor LGBT-related information. Such filters are entirely separate from legitimate filters used to block sexually explicit or pornographic websites.

The ACLU was informed through the “Don’t Filter Me” program that Prince William County school officials had activated the LGBT filter on its Blue Coat Systems software, leaving students, teachers and others who use the schools’ computers unable to access educational LGBT and anti-bullying resources such as GSA Network, Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, and the It Gets Better Project.

“We commend Prince William school officials for removing this discriminatory LGBT filter, which serves no purpose but to deprive students of important educational materials and resources,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Of course, if the software company the school used had not provided them with the tools to specifically censor LGBT websites this might never have occurred.”

Last week, a widely used filtering company, Lightspeed System, announced that it would remove a similar software filter that blocks access to educational LGBT websites. Five filtering companies, including Blue Coat, continue to use specialized filters designed to censor LGBT content that is not pornographic or sexually explicit.

This is not the first time Blue Coat’s LGBT filter has exposed its clients to legal liability. In 2009, two Tennessee school districts agreed to disable the LGBT filter on their Blue Coat software after being sued by the ACLU. In 2010, a Maryland school district agreed to disable its LGBT filter after receiving a demand letter from the ACLU. During this year’s “Don’t Filter Me” campaign, schools in New Jersey and Texas agreed to disable their LGBT filter after being contacted by the ACLU.

“We hope that Blue Coat follows Lightspeed’s lead and removes the ‘LGBT’ filter, which serves no educational purpose and is designed to discriminate against LGBT viewpoints,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “The vast majority of school districts have no desire to discriminate against LGBT-related content and are simply trying to protect their students from pornographic or sexually explicit materials. Why should a software company include a feature that could be mistakenly activated and cause the school to violate the Constitution? By failing to step in to remove the ‘LGBT’ filter, Blue Coat is doing a disservice to its customers and the students they serve.”

When used by a public school, programs that block all LGBT content not only violate the First Amendment right of free speech, but also the federal Equal Access Act, which prohibits public schools from viewpoint discrimination in the allocation of resources for extracurricular clubs. Under the Equal Access Act, student gay-straight alliances and LGBT support groups must be allowed access to national organizational websites that help them function, just as other groups, such as the Key Clubs and the chess clubs, are able to use their national websites for assistance.

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