KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The American Civil Liberties Union sent letters Monday to schools in Missouri and Michigan telling them to stop blocking students' access to educational websites about gay, lesbian and transgender issues.
Besides the letters to the North Kansas City School District and Rochester Community Schools, the ACLU also is sending requests for information about web filtering programs to school districts in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and Washington. The Missouri district blamed a technical problem for sites being blocked, and the Michigan district said it's looking into the matter.
Meanwhile, the North Kansas City School District's filtering provider Lightspeed Systems reclassified one LGBT website Monday so it would be less likely to be blocked.
The ACLU first addressed the issue in 2009 when it filed a lawsuit 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, Block said the organization has received numerous complaints that schools are continuing to block LGBT sites, prompting the national campaign.
"Before it was a game of whack-a-mole," said Joshua Block, the staff attorney for the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project. "You would fix it in one school district, and it would pop up in another."
The ACLU identified the schools it is contacting by working with the Yale Law School on a campaign called "Don't Filter Me," which asked students to check to see if their schools are blocking content by having them look up eight LGBT sites. Five provide educational and support while the ACLU characterizes the other three as anti-gay for encouraging gays and lesbians to change their sexual orientation.
Block said filtering systems are set up to block out a range of content, everything from Internet gambling and shopping sites to social media and sports sites. The ACLU had no problems blocking out sexually explicit content, but Block said that's not the aim of the filters blocking out LGBT content.
One filter provider has a warning that pops up on students' screens when they go to off-limits websites, telling them their search is being blocked because it's LGBT and that their Internet usage is being monitored and logged. Block said that for a LGBT student without a supportive home environment "that's not very helpful to say the least."
He said that while it's legal for parents and private schools to block LGBT material, it's another thing when public schools do it. Schools aren't allowed to limit access just because they disagree with a group's viewpoint, he said.
He also said the ACLU is looking into whether the web filtering vendors know their public school customers are using their software to block material that students should be able to access. The record requests that the ACLU is sending to schools are seeking a range of details, including the types of content blocked under filtering software's default settings.
He said getting companies to address the issue could prove easier than approaching thousands of schools.
"At a minimum the companies should warn public schools that some of the filter categories aren't appropriate," Block said.
Rochester Community Schools said in a statement that it is is in the process of "reviewing the filtering rules in the software" it uses from DeepNines Technologies and stressed "this is the first time this issue has come to our attention."
Scott O'Neill, a spokesman for Netsweeper Inc., which acquired DeepNines earlier this year, said he couldn't discuss the Rochester situation specifically, but that if a school is inappropriately blocking content that's an issue the school should resolve internally.
North Kansas City Schools said in a news release that two LGBT websites that the ACLU said were closed are now open and accessible.
"There appears to have been a technical problem," the statement said. "For the record, NKC Schools does not block websites or students' access to websites on the basis of content related to the fair treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender persons."
Amy Bennett, a spokeswoman for Lightspeed Systems, North Kansas City Schools' filtering provider, said the company's default settings should have allowed students to view the two sites that the ACLU said were blocked. She said the company would reach out to the district to make sure the technical problems were resolved.