Mis­souri school dis­trict yields on Web fil­ters

Set­tle­ment of ACLU suit lessens curbs on pro-gay sites

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY CH­ERYL WETZSTEIN

A Mis­souri school dis­trict has agreed to set­tle a law­suit filed by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union over stu­dent ac­cess to pro-gay web­sites.

The Cam­den­ton R-III School Dis­trict in cen­tral Mis­souri will en­sure that non­sex­ual web­sites on les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der (LGBT) is­sues will be put on a cus­tom­ized “whitelist,” mean­ing stu­dents can ac­cess them, ac­cord­ing to a con­sent judg­ment that is due to be filed in fed­eral court.

The school dis­trict also agreed to have its web­site mon­i­tored for 18 months and pay $125,000 in le­gal costs.

”We are very happy about the set­tle­ment, and we’re de­lighted that stu­dents in Cam­den­ton now will be able to have view­point-neu­tral ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tional web­sites about LGBT is­sues,” said Joshua Block, staff at­tor­ney with the LGBT Project at the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU).

As a re­sult of this law­suit, he said, Cam­den­ton’s soft­ware-fil­ter­ing part­ner, Url­black­list.com, has “com­pletely over­hauled” its sys­tem “to stop view­point-based cen­sor­ship of LGBT web­sites.”

“This fil­ter used to block some­thing like 8,000 web­sites, and af­ter this over­haul, it only blocks a cou­ple hun­dred,” Mr. Block said. “The fact that Url­black­list has made these changes is a com­plete re­pu­di­a­tion of the school dis­trict’s po­si­tion that they were op­er­at­ing their fil­ter­ing sys­tem in a rea­son­able man­ner.”

The school dis­trict “voted to set­tle the case . . . in or­der to put the fo­cus in the dis­trict back on pro­vid­ing the high­est level of ed­u­ca­tion pos­si­ble to its stu­dents,” said Bet­sey A. Hel­frich, an at­tor­ney with Mickes Gold­man O’Toole, the law firm that de­fended the school dis­trict against the ACLU, which brought the suit on be­half of sev­eral pro-gay or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“Through­out this lit­i­ga­tion, the in­tent of the dis­trict was to pro­tect stu­dents from dis­able­ment of the dis­trict’s ‘sex­u­al­ity’ In­ter­net fil­ter, yet, while at the same time, al­low­ing its stu­dents to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion. The dis­trict suc­ceeded in this en­deavor and is glad that this case has been re­solved,” she said.

The law­suit stemmed from the ACLU’S “Don’t Fil­ter Me” cam­paign, which sent let­ters to dozens of school dis­tricts warn­ing them that their web­fil­ter­ing sys­tems were il­le­gally block­ing pro-gay web­sites.

Some 96 school dis­tricts ad­justed their fil­ters, as did five soft­ware-fil­ter­ing com­pa­nies, the ACLU said in an Au­gust 2011 re­port on its cam­paign.

How­ever, the Cam­den­ton school dis­trict balked at the ACLU’S May 2011 let­ter, since the ACLU threat­ened le­gal ac­tion if the school’s “sex­u­al­ity” fil­ter was not “re­moved im­me­di­ately.” The ACLU also urged Cam­den­ton to cease us­ing Url­black­list.com as its fil­ter­ing part­ner, and “use a dif­fer­ent data­base” in­stead.

Cam­den­ton school of­fi­cials re­sponded to the ACLU by un­block­ing the web­sites the ACLU iden­ti­fied in its let­ter, i.e., The Trevor Project; Day of Si­lence; Gay-straight Al­liance Net­work; and Gay, Les­bian, Straight Ed­u­ca­tion Net­work.

But in Au­gust 2011, the ACLU sued the Mis­souri school dis­trict on be­half of Par­ents, Fam­i­lies and Friends of Les­bians and Gays (PFLAG); Dig­nity USA; the Matthew Shep­ard Foun­da­tion; and Cam­pus Pride, ar­gu­ing that Cam­den­ton was still en­gag­ing in “view­point dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

On Feb. 15, U.S. Dis­trict Judge Nanette K. Laugh­rey in the Western Dis­trict of Mis­souri ruled that Cam­den­ton school of­fi­cials had 30 days to change their web-fil­ter­ing soft­ware to “not dis­crim­i­nate against web­sites ex­press­ing a pos­i­tive view to­ward” gays and gay is­sues.

Tom Mickes, Cam­den­ton’s lead de­fense at­tor­ney and found­ing part­ner of Mickes Gold­man O’toole, said Thurs­day that Url­black­list.com had al­ready made in­ter­nal re­vi­sions “that re­solved 99 per­cent of the is­sues, and we vol­un­tar­ily re­solved the 1 per­cent of the is­sues.”

The school dis­trict re­mains pleased that the judge’s rul­ing “pre­serve[d] the two things we fought to pre­serve” — the cus­tom­ized “sex­u­al­ity” fil­ter and use of Url­black­list.com as a fil­ter­ing part­ner, added Mr. Mickes.

“As long as we can do what we wanted to do to pro­tect the kids, then we’re happy,” he said.

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