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ACLU: Tenn Schools Illegally Blocking Access To LGBT Websites, Allows Ex-Gay Sites

Jim Burroway

April 15th, 2009

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as many of 107 Tennessee public school districts could be illegally preventing students from accessing accurate and balanced online information about LGBT issues. The same Internet filtering software however allows access to ex-gay groups. In a letter sent to Knox County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the Tennessee Schools Cooperative, the ACLU demanded that they unblock access to LGBT sites.

This is from the ACLU’s press release (not yet available online):

“When I found out about this web filtering software, I wasn’t looking for anything sexual or inappropriate – I was looking for information about scholarships for LGBT students, and I couldn’t get to it because of this software,” said Andrew Emitt, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School in Knoxville . “Our schools shouldn’t be keeping students in the dark about LGBT organizations and resources.”

…In its demand letter, the ACLU notes that websites that urge LGBT persons to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through so-called “reparative therapy” or “ex-gay” ministries – a practice denounced as dangerous and harmful to young people by such groups as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics – can still be easily accessed by students.

“One of the problems with this software is that it only allows students access to one side of information about topics that are part of the public debate right now, like marriage for same-sex couples,” said Karyn Storts-Brinks, a librarian at Fulton High School in Knoxville, pointing out that the software blocks access to organizations that support marriage for same-sex couples like the Religious Coalition for Freedom to Marry or the Interfaith Working Group while allowing access to organizations that oppose marriage equality. “Students who need to do research for assignments on current events can only get one viewpoint, keeping them from being able to cover both sides of the issue. That’s not fair and can hinder their schoolwork.”

The schools in question use filtering software provided by Education Networks of America (ENA). The software’s default settings blocks sites categorized as LGBT, which include:

  • Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
  • The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
  • Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
  • Marriage Equality USA
  • Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry
  • The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)
  • Dignity USA (an organization for LGBT Catholics)

The ACLU is giving the districts until April 29 to come up with a plan to provide access to LGBT sites or any other category that blocks non-sexual websites advocating the fair treatment of LGBT people by the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year.

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Truth Wins Out - ‘True Tolerance’? Tennessee Students ‘Protected’ from Gay Health, Science, Education Sites
April 15th, 2009 | LINK

[...] Box Turtle Bulletin reports: The ACLU is giving the districts until April 29 to come up with a plan to provide access to LGBT sites or any other category that blocks non-sexual websites advocating the fair treatment of LGBT people by the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year. [...]

Christopher™
April 15th, 2009 | LINK

I did a little digging and found out a few interesting tidbits.

CEO, David M. Pierce, was a political contributor to TN senator Lamar Alexander. Doesn’t say much other than he leans Republican, but it’s interesting.

And I found this 2004 quote at TMCnet.com, in reference to ENA’s products:

“ENA is also using DataReactor to filter specific types of content delivered to schools, in order to comply with state laws. The software offers customizable settings to ensure that only appropriate content can be accessed and delivered. Anticipating the growing needs of its customers, ENA plans to expand the use of DataReactor and deploy an enterprise content delivery network (eCDN) in the near future.”

It would be interesting to learn if the default settings are done by ENA out of the box, or whether the school districts in question set them up as defaults themselves.

Timothy Kincaid
April 15th, 2009 | LINK

From ENA’s website:

Examples of a few of ENA’s filter categories are Hate/Discrimination, Gambling, Pornography, Adults Only, Suicide/Murder and School Cheating Pages.

It would be interesting to know whether the SPLC’s anti-gay hate sites are blocked.

Jim Burroway
April 15th, 2009 | LINK

Christopher,

According to the ACLU, the default settings are done by ENA out of the box.

Christopher™
April 15th, 2009 | LINK

Thanks, Jim.

andrea d
April 16th, 2009 | LINK

You know, if they don’t want kids to have access to the LGBT info then they need to block the the anti-LGBT sites too. Of course you’d hear a rousing chorus of Christian groups say they’re being persecuted for it.

Christopher Waldrop
April 21st, 2009 | LINK

Some people have said that it should be left up to the parents to decide what their kids are told which sounds fine, but has a couple of problems. The first is, they can’t really block any site that has any mention of LGBT issues. If they did they’d have to block just about everything, including a lot of newspapers. As far as I know the filter programs aren’t specific enough that they can block access to specific articles within a site.

The other problem is that kids, particularly LGBT kids, can’t always go to their parents.

Filter Developer
May 15th, 2009 | LINK

If you would like the perspective of a developer of a filtering product, who if given the chance to do it over again, here goes…

Having an intimate knowledge of the Internet, I recognize that there is exponentially more harmful content than educationally beneficial content available on the Internet. I now realize that trying to block out the harmful content while still allowing access to the beneficial content is a completely foolhardy goal that simply cannot be accomplished. A considerably more realizable goal would be to identify quality, relevant educational material available on the Internet and provide access to that using a white-list at the exclusion of everything else. This is exactly the approach schools take when choosing textbooks and I believe the same approach would work well with the Internet. I should point out that this is the polar opposite of the message I was preaching several years ago, but having spent 11 years playing Don Quixote, I have finally come to this new conclusion.

I know a lot of people would be outraged at my opinion, but I have seen more than anyone’s fair share of the garbage available on the Internet. By virtue of being a developer of an Internet filtering product, I have acquired an intimate knowledge of things I wish I had never seen or heard of. I thought by developing a filtering product I would somehow be protecting others from this stuff, but after 11 years of watching how the peddlers of the filth sneak and weasel their way past the filters, I now realize I have spent countless thousands of hours trying to stop a giant snowball from rolling down a very steep hill.

I am not suggesting that the material referenced in the ACLU letter should or should not be allowed, I am simply saying the schools shouldn’t be obligated to provide access to anything not specifically related to the education they should be providing our children.

cowboy
May 15th, 2009 | LINK

Developer,

I can empathize with the white-list idea. But, we must have the pro-gay groups available on that white list. The anti-gay factions have too much influence on the public school system. Here where I went to school we couldn’t even mention the word homosexual. The anti-gay forces have had far too much control over what can be accessed on the topic in our schools.

And, I have wonder who gets to select what gets on this white list. All too often the school board is made up of religious zealots bent on foisting lies and ignorance about homosexuality.

In spite of all the bad we find on the internet, there needs to be a vehicle to get the good information and the truth to those who are homosexuals. I tend to favor a unregulated (unfiltered) access because I think we gain far more with having all the information available. I think most young people can determine the truth and the good from the bad.

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