The American Civil Liberties Union announced this week that it notified Oroville Union High School District in Northern California that the school is “improperly configured to block access to Web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.”
Oroville Union isn’t the first to receive this message from the ACLU — a number of schools in Michigan, Kansas, and Missouri received similar notification in March. These actions are part of the ACLU’s “Don’t Filter Me” initiative, combating what the organization sees as the illegal censorship of LGBT educational information via schools’ computers.
In its complaints against schools, ACLU challenges that districts’ Internet filters have been set up to block access to LGBT Web content. The ACLU was prompted to send the letter to the school district when Melina Zancanella, a junior at Oroville High School and president of its gay-straight alliance club, was unable to access Web sites aimed at helping curb suicide among gay teens.
According to Elizabeth Gill, attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, school officials are often unaware that the software provided by filtering companies can censor LGBT-related materials that are not sexually explicit. The ACLU website offers a survey on its site asking high school students about what sort of content is filtered at their schools. Joshua Block, an ACLU attorney who works on the LGBT and AIDS project, notes that while these filters purportedly keep kids safe, “at the same time, they’re letting in content that’s very harmful to LGBT students, like reparative therapy and ex-gay sites, and what’s happening is that because of these viewpoints [and] discriminatory filters, the school is perfectly fine letting kids see material about homosexuality that is anti-gay, but at the same time they’re blocking the students from seeing supportive websites.”
In the recent Speak Up 2010 survey, students listed Web filtering as one of the major barriers to their technology usage at school. Students complain that they aren’t able to access the information they need online in order to complete their assignments because important websites are blocked at school.
Although the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) does mandate that schools and libraries have some sort of filter to protect students from images that are obscene, pornographic, or harmful to minors, many school districts go beyond those guidelines and employ filters that block a variety of content. Indeed, some teachers wonder why certain sites, like YouTube, Dropbox, and National Geographic are blocked by Internet filters. Although schools do need to formulate an Internet safety policy and decide what content to filter, broad filters and “brute force technologies” are not the best policy, as Department of Education’s Director of Education Technology, Karen Cator explained about the schools’ responsibilities.
The ACLU’s Block told eSchoolNews that the problem is easy to fix: adjust the filters. That may be easier said than done. The Oroville High School District has not yet commented on the ACLU’s demands that it do just that.