Court Orders Missouri School District to Stop Censoring LGBT Websites

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A federal district court ruled today that the Camdenton R-III School District must stop censoring web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities through discriminatory filtering software. The ruling orders the district to not block content based on the viewpoints expressed by the website.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit against the district in August 2011 after repeated warnings that its custom-built filtering software discriminates against LGBT content. The filter has a category that blocks LGBT-supportive information, including hundreds of websites that are not sexually explicit in any way. The filter does, however, allow students to view anti-LGBT sites that condemn homosexuality or opposed legal protections for LGBT people.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Camdenton High School student and LGBT organizations whose websites are blocked by the filter: PFLAG National (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride and DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT organization. The plaintiffs were also represented by Thompson Coburn LLP.

“The court correctly recognized the constitutional rights of all students to viewpoint-neutral access to information,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “It is absolutely possible to protect children from sexually explicit content while also protecting their First Amendment rights. Like thousands of other school districts across the country, Camdenton R-III will now begin using a filtering system that blocks pornography without discriminating against LGBT-related content.”

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri said that the district’s filtering system “systematically allows access to websites expressing a negative viewpoint toward LGBT individuals by categorizing them as ‘religion,’ but filters out positive viewpoints toward LGBT issues by categorizing them as ‘sexuality.’” Although the district argued that it would unblock individual websites upon request the court held that “students may be deterred from accessing websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals either by the inconvenience of having to wait twenty-four hours for access or by the stigma of knowing that viewpoint has been singled out as less worthy by the school district and the community.”

The court also concluded that other filtering systems are available that “are much more effective” at filtering out pornography “and do so without burdening websites that express a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.”

“The filtering system that had been installed at Camdenton R-III was arbitrary, ineffective and discriminatory,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Today’s ruling affirms that students will be free to search for resources for their gay-straight alliance, seek support against bullying and research history as it pertains to LGBT people, just as they would for any other subject.”

More about this case can be found at: www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/pflag-v-camdenton-r-iii-school-district

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