KANSAS CITY, Mo.—A California-based company that received scrutiny because of an ACLU campaign is believed to be the first major web filter provider to drop a category that allowed schools in Missouri and elsewhere to block students' access to educational websites about gay, lesbian and transgender issues. Lightspeed Systems is working to reclassify the sites classified as "education.lifestyles." Although the category was accessible under a default setting, it could be activated to block sites focused on what the company described as "alternate lifestyles," particularly those discussing LGBT issues but also those about being vegan or vegetarian.
Questions about the category arose after the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters this spring to about 15 districts as part of a campaign aimed at stopping the filtering of LGBT content. Four customers of Lightspeed Systems—North Kansas City School District in Missouri, Downingtown Area School District in Pennsylvania, Northfield Public Schools in Minnesota and Avoca School District 37 in suburban Chicago—were among those contacted by the ACLU in response to student complaints.
The target is to update customers' software Monday, said Amy Bennett, a spokeswoman for Bakersfield, Calif.-based Lightspeed Systems. She said the company contacted customers about the change and the response was "overwhelming positive."
"Once we had looked into it and realized that the districts were comingunder criticism we wanted to do what we could to make sure our customers were protected and things were categorized fairly," Bennett said.
Joshua Block, the staff attorney for the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project, said five other web filter companies have categories that allow schools to block LGBT content. He praised Lightspeed and said he hoped the other companies would make similar changes.
"Many of these school districts had either activated the filter without realizing what it does or had activated it by accident," Block said. "I think that the vast majority of school districts are trying in good faith to protect their students and didn't have any desire to discriminate against gay content. I think this really shows that these filters don't really serve the needs of the clients and if anything they work against the needs of the client."
The North Kansas City School District has blamed technical problems for the blocking of LGBT sites. After learning of the issue it unblocked the entire category and said in a statement the changes to Lightspeed would have made it easier to manage the system. Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Chris Richardson said a technician turned on the filter because he thought it blocked sexually explicit material. After a staff member pointed out that educational LGBT sites were being blocked, the district tried to fix the problem but wound up only giving access to staff.
"I appreciate that it's not even going to be there for someone to accidently activate," Richardson said. "Because I think the reality for us is I think we've been a district that has tried to be very open and supportive of all of our students. It has been frustrating to us that Lightspeed would even have put this piece in without being very clear that it was kind of above and beyond."
Messages left with the other two districts weren't immediately returned.
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.
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 had no problems blocking out sexually explicit content, but said the problem was many schools were using filtering software to block sites that were purely educational. Block said public schools aren't allowed to limit access just because they disagree with a group's viewpoint, he said.
"I think it's very clear that a public school cannot constitutionally use an LGBT filter, that it's unconstitutional," Block said. "And so why put your clients in this precarious position of putting a booby trap in their software that will cause them to violate the constitution?"