April 2009 (To print, click the print icon on your browser
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Tennessee Schools Sued over Censored LGBT Websites

 Knox County and Nashville, TN

 
On May 19th 2009, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the Knox County and Nashville school systems for unconstitutionally blocking access to educational websites about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues on school computers. The school systems’ web-filtering software blocks support sites like that of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), but not those that “condemn homosexuality” or advocate for “curing” people who are homosexual. The ACLU contends that this amounts to viewpoint discrimination and is illegal.[1]
 
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are students from both school districts and a librarian, who is also the advisor of the gay-straight alliance at a high school in the Knox County system. Another graduating senior in the Knox schools also helped alert the ACLU to the situation. As the co-founder of the one of the district’s GSAs, he first encountered the block on websites in 2007. He wrote a letter to the filtering software company, Education Networks of America (ENA), but was told that it was the school system’s choice whether or not to block certain categories of websites. His next step was to ask a teacher to manually override the block on GLSEN’s website. The teacher was not interested and so he reached out to the ACLU. Around the same time, the ACLU was talking to the librarian, who had dealt with the filtering issues while trying to help students with research papers.[2]
 
She had figured out that the filtering software was specifically targeting educational sites like GLSEN or the Gay Straight Alliance Network, not simply catching them through keyword blocking. “What’s not being blocked are sites that contain the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ but are advocating, for example, that people change their sexual orientation,” she said.[3] She also discovered that pornographic websites were being blocked through a different category, so it would be entirely possible for the software to continue blocking all pornography, but allow the LGBT educational sites. 
 
After these students and staff came forward, the ACLU sent two letters to the school districts; in February and again in April. Neither district wished to comment after the law suits were filed.[4] 
 
In its research, the ACLU discovered that the filtering software may be used statewide. Over 100 schools in Tennessee currently have a LGBT filtering category for student computers. The details are still being uncovered, but attorneys at the ACLU believe that ENA originally signed a contract with one school district—Greenville City Schools—and then other Tennessee districts were given the option to sign-on to that contract. Though thus far, it has only been contacted by students and staff at two districts, the ACLU hopes to hear from more.[5] 
 
The Knox County librarian involved in the suit believes that because of this complicated system of contracts, the school district is not acting maliciously. “Knox County seems to be exonerated in its initial role,” she said, but continued “Now is the time for them to actively do something to halt the LGBT filtering.”[6]
 
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Middle Tennessee. SIECUS will continue to monitor the situation.
 


[1] Lola Alapo, “ACLU sues Knox, Nashville school systems over blocking access to Web sites about gay/lesbian issues.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 20 May 2009, accessed 27 May 2009, <www.knoxnews.com/news/2009/may/20/aclu-sues-2-systems/>.
[2] Rose Kennedy, “ACLU Tackles Knox County Schools' LGBT Website Block,” MetroPulse.com, 22 April 2009, accessed 27 May 2009, <www.metropulse.com/news/2009/apr/22/aclu-tackles-knox-county-schools-lgbt-website-bloc/>.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Alapo, “ACLU sues Knox, Nashville school systems.”
[5] Kennedy, “ACLU Tackles Knox County Schools' LGBT Website Block.”
[6] Ibid.