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Mo. school agrees to unblock gay websites

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A Missouri school district has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over student access to pro-gay websites.

The Camdenton R-III School District in central Missouri will ensure that nonsexual websites on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues will be put on a customized "whitelist," meaning students can access them, according to a consent judgment that is due to be filed in federal court.

The school district also agreed to have its website monitored for 18 months and pay $125,000 in legal costs.

"We are very happy about the settlement, and we're delighted that students in Camdenton now will be able to have viewpoint-neutral access to educational websites about LGBT issues," said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the LGBT Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

As a result of this lawsuit, he said, Camdenton's software-filtering partner, URLBlacklist.com, has "completely overhauled" its system "to stop viewpoint-based censorship of LGBT websites."

"This filter used to block something like 8,000 websites, and after this overhaul, it only blocks a couple hundred," Mr. Block said. "The fact that URLBlacklist has made these changes is a complete repudiation of the school district's position that they were operating their filtering system in a reasonable manner."

The school district "voted to settle the case in order to put the focus in the district back on providing the highest level of education possible to its students," said Betsey A. Helfrich, an attorney with Mickes Goldman O'Toole, the law firm that defended the school district against the ACLU, which brought the suit on behalf of several pro-gay organizations.

"Throughout this litigation, the intent of the district was to protect students from disablement of the district's 'sexuality' Internet filter, yet, while at the same time, allowing its students to access information. The district succeeded in this endeavor and is glad that this case has been resolved," she said.

The lawsuit stemmed from the ACLU's "Don't Filter Me" campaign, which sent letters to dozens of school districts warning them that their web-filtering systems were illegally blocking pro-gay websites.

Some 96 school districts adjusted their filters, as did five software-filtering companies, the ACLU said in an August 2011 report on its campaign.

However, the Camdenton school district balked at the ACLU's May 2011 letter, since the ACLU threatened legal action if the school's "sexuality" filter was not "removed immediately." The ACLU also urged Camdenton to cease using URLBlacklist.com as its filtering partner, and "use a different database" instead.

Camdenton school officials responded to the ACLU by unblocking the websites the ACLU identified in its letter, i.e., The Trevor Project; Day of Silence; Gay-Straight Alliance Network; and Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network.

But in August 2011, the ACLU sued the Missouri school district on behalf of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); Dignity USA; the Matthew Shepard Foundation; and Campus Pride, arguing that Camdenton was still engaging in "viewpoint discrimination."

On Feb. 15, U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey in the Western District of Missouri ruled that Camdenton school officials had 30 days to change their web-filtering software to "not discriminate against websites expressing a positive view toward" gays and gay issues.

Tom Mickes, Camdenton's lead defense attorney and founding partner of Mickes Goldman O'Toole, said Thursday that URLBlacklist.com had already made internal revisions "that resolved 99 percent of the issues, and we voluntarily resolved the 1 percent of the issues."

The school district remains pleased that the judge's ruling "preserve[d] the two things we fought to preserve" — the customized "sexuality" filter and use of URLBlacklist.com as a filtering partner, added Mr. Mickes.

"As long as we can do what we wanted to do to protect the kids, then we're happy," he said.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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