By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A legal group that advocates for religious freedom announced Monday that it is backing a central Missouri school district that is being sued because its Internet filtering software blocks access to educational websites about gay, lesbian and transgender issues.
The Alliance Defense Fund said it and the Missouri Family Policy Council filed a friend-of-the-court brief Friday in defense of the Camdenton R-III School District.
As part of a national campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the district last month in federal court in Jefferson City 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 Alliance Defense Fund said in a news release that the ACLU demands would “expose children to pornography under the guise of concern about censorship and bullying”
Joshua Block, the staff attorney for the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project, said no one wants sexually explicit sites to be available. He said public schools aren’t allowed to limit access just because they disagree with a group’s viewpoint.
Superintendent Tim Hadfield said the district is working through its attorneys and is seeking to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which addresses concerns about access to potentially offensive content over the Internet on school and library computers.
“We also do want to uphold the constitutional rights of our students,” Hadfield said. “Where we’re at right now is we appreciate support.”
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 that 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.
The ACLU said many of the schools it contacted reported that they inadvertently turned on the filter that blocks educational LGBT sites when they merely intended to block sexually explicit material. The fix was as simple as turning off the filter blocking the educational sites.
Block said Camdenton faces more challenges untangling explicit and non-explicit sites because it’s using software that allows people to design their own filtering systems. He said that to make the system work, the district downloaded a database of off-limits sites for “dirt cheap” from an overseas Internet site. Block said the database lumps together pornographic sites with those that tell people how to organize LGBT support groups.
“The main argument we are saying in the brief is the school district, like almost every other school district in the country, should go to a reputable software provider who has policies to filter material in viewpoint neutral ways and knows the difference between a human rights campaign and a fetish website,” Block said. “The fact that they want to save money and it’s cheaper to use discriminatory software than a legitimate software product isn’t a constitutionally valid reason.”
ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said in a statement that no district should be bullied into exposing children to sexually graphic material.
“It’s reprehensible that the ACLU and Yale Law School are more concerned about forwarding an agenda that exposes children to harm than they are about protecting those children,” Cortman said in a news release.
Block said the district has filed a motion to dismiss and the ACLU has filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction. No hearing date has been set.