- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2011

A fierce legal battle on free speech and family values is brewing about Internet filters used by school administrators to block students’ access to gay educational and advocacy websites.

Gay rights groups say school systems cannot impose blanket bans on gay-related informational and cultural websites on school computers, while values groups warn that the absence of the blocking filters could leave children exposed to sexually explicit material.

“There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) Project and leader of the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign.

The ACLU has sent warning letters to many school districts, including Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia, advising them that Internet filters blocking nonsexual gay websites are unconstitutional and must be removed to “avoid any potential litigation.”

But David Cortman, a lawyer with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which defends traditional values organizations, counters that “school districts shouldn’t be bullied into exposing students to sexually explicit materials.”

The ADF recently sent letters to at least eight school districts, urging them to reject the ACLU’s demands and reactivate their filters on gay-related websites. “We want to make sure that schools don’t unnecessarily cave to the ACLU’s demands,” Mr. Cortman said.

Some school districts, such as Prince William’s, have removed their LGBT filters. A Missouri school district that refused to lift its customized “sexuality” filter was sued in federal court this month by the ACLU and four gay advocacy organizations.

Mr. Cortman said the ACLU is not satisfied if schools remove the block on specific websites, such as those for the “Day of Silence” and “It Gets Better” campaigns.

Instead, the ACLU wants schools to remove filters on “entire categories” of content, such as “LGBT,” “sexuality,” “lifestyle,” “homosexuality” and “sex education,” Mr. Cortman said. If these broad filters are disabled, students likely will have access to inappropriate sexual material.

ADF is “adding unnecessary confusion to the issue,” said Mr. Block of the ACLU. No one is advocating “turning schools into porn portals,” he said. Schools “can’t suppress library resources in a viewpoint-discriminatory way.”

States are approaching the subject of teaching gay-related themes in various ways. California this year became the first state in the nation to require its public schools to teach students about the achievements of gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. “History should be honest,” said Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat.

State textbooks now will be required to include information on the role of LGBT Americans, as well as Americans with disabilities, though California’s budget crisis has delayed the purchasing of new books until at least 2015.

Ken Blackstone, director of communications for Prince William schools, said Friday that the school system had received a letter from ADF urging it to reactive the filter. However, “after thoroughly reviewing our Internet-filtering software,” Mr. Blackstone said, “we determined that the LGBT category of the filter could be removed” and still allow the district to meet its legal obligations of blocking objectionable materials to children.

Meanwhile, school officials in Camdenton, Mo., are preparing their response, due Thursday, to an Aug. 15 lawsuit filed against them in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Missouri, Central Division.

Camdenton is blocking websites that support LGBT individuals and rights, “while allowing access to comparable websites that take anti-LGBT positions,” said the lawsuit, filed by Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; Dignity Inc.; the Matthew Shepard Foundation; and Campus Pride.

The lawsuit asks the court to stop Camdenton’s school district from using its “sexuality” filter.

Camdenton officials received a letter this year from the ACLU about their filter and a small number of gay advocacy websites.

School officials used the process they have in place whenever a textbook or library book is challenged, said Tom Mickes, counsel for the Camdenton school district. “We take a look at it,” he said, “and our track record, at least with these [ACLU] folks, has been that we have opened those [requested] websites.”

This time, however, school officials kept the “sexuality” filter in place to protect their students from inappropriate materials, Mr. Mickes said.

“No offense to the Easterners,” he said, “but we want to run our school district based on what our citizens and the kids in Missouri need, not what somebody in New York wants.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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