Judge hears lawsuit on school website filters

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | 6:20 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A federal judge heard arguments Thursday on whether a central Missouri school district can use software that has prevented automatic access to some websites with information on gay, lesbian and transgender issues.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey was asked by the American Civil Liberties Union to put an preliminary injunction against the district, but she made no immediate decision.

She also was considering the school district's assertion that an unnamed student and several organizations that operate websites had no legal standing to bring the lawsuit because they had not suffered any harm from the district's policy.

The Camdenton school system is the first to be sued under a recent national campaign by the ACLU and Yale Law School intended to improve access at schools to websites related to gay and lesbian issues.

More than 100 school districts were contacted as part of the project. Only the Camdenton and Gwinnet County Public School District in Georgia have not yet responded by changing their Internet filtering software, said Joshua Block, an attorney for the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project.

Although they have not changed website filtering services, Camdenton school officials testified that they have allowed access to four specific websites cited by the ACLU that had previously been blocked by filters. During Thursday's hearing, school officials repeatedly stressed that they have no intent to discriminate against websites with gay and lesbian content.

In 2010, Camdenton schools began using an Internet filtering service provide by that the ACLU contends infringes on First Amendment rights by grouping some nonsexual websites related to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender issues into a blacklisted category of websites dealing with sexuality. The Camdenton School District allows students or employees who get blocked from a website to submit an anonymous request for access to the site. School officials then view the website and decide whether to override the filtering service and allow access to it.

Over the past few years, the district has received about 2,000 requests to unblock certain websites and has granted about 80 percent of those, testified Randal Cowen, the district's network administrator.

The school district's attorney, Thomas Mickes, argued that the student — listed only as Jane Doe in the lawsuit — had no legal standing to sue because she had not requested and been denied access to any website. He said the nonprofit organizations that operate websites similarly had no legal standing to sue, because there is no constitutional right for Internet publishers to have access to public school students.

Mickes argued that the school had not censored any websites based on their viewpoints. He said sites dealing with gay and lesbian issues that get blocked by the filtering software are treated the same in the review process as any other website that gets flagged by the filters.

Block, representing the ACLU, argued that the school system has engaged in censorship by continuing to use a filtering service that it now knows is overly broad in blocking access to some gay and lesbian websites. The ACLU said few other school districts use the same filtering service as Camdenton.

Before its current campaign, the ACLU in 2009 sued the Knoxville and Nashville school districts in Tennessee over access to websites with lesbian and gay information. Those districts then agreed to stop using filtering software that blocked those sites.

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