NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey school district has removed filters that blocked lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender related websites after receiving student complaints and the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the district about its use of Internet filters. The inquiry is part of a national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign by the ACLU and Yale Law School to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.
The Vineland School District in Cumberland County had been using filtering software provided by Blue Coat, which has a specialized filter called “LGBT.” The district removed the filters from its high school computers on March 31, 2011 — just days after the ACLU of New Jersey submitted an open records request for documents about filtering software. The district subsequently agreed to remove the LGBT filter from middle school computers as well.
Other ACLU affiliates in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia sent letters today demanding they stop similar viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward LGBT communities.
“There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project. “This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites. These filters are designed to discriminate and are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or inappropriate.”
Justin Rodriguez and Shaun Laurencio, two students at Vineland High School had been complaining to their school for three years about various LGBT websites being blocked, and renewed their complaints at the same time the ACLU asked about the district’s filtering policies.
“What really hit this home for me was when I was writing a paper for class about Harvey Milk, but every site with information about his life was blocked for having ‘LGBT content,’” said Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Vineland High School. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S. and is a respected historical figure; his birthday is a state holiday in California.
Rodriguez added, “Seeing all these websites that are considered somehow unacceptable because of something I am was really offensive to me.”
Laurencio, an 18-year-old senior, said they had to badger the administration every time they discovered an obstacle.
“At first they’d unblock whatever specific site we’d asked about, but after a while they stopped unblocking the sites,” Laurencio said. “It was really discouraging.”
“Unblocking individual sites is not a viable solution,” said Block. “As long as the anti-LGBT filter is in place, students will be confronted with a demeaning and stigmatizing message that the site has been blocked on account of its LGBT-related content. It’s unfair to put students in the difficult position of asking special permission before being allowed to access LGBT viewpoints. Public schools have a duty to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”
The ACLU of New Jersey has also filed open records requests with 26 districts in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, requesting contracts with Internet filtering software providers, policies about the use of software and any communication with software vendors that mention filters related to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender-related content.
A video showing students how to test whether or not their schools are illegally filtering content, and providing instructions for reporting censorship is available.
Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out this form.
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools