In February 2009, NCAC and the ACLU of Tennessee jointly responded to a situation at a Knoxville, TN high school where internet filters are currently blocking constitutional protected material on the web, specifically sites that provide political and educational content around LGBT issues. The censorship was discovered by Andrew Emmitt, a senior at Central High School:

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. Our schools shouldn’t be keeping students in the dark about LGBT organizations and resources.

According to information obtained by the ACLU through the Open Records Act, the filtering software, provided by Educational Networks of America through a contract with the Tennessee Schools Cooperative, is in place in 80% of public schools in the state. But while ENA’s filtering product (designed by Blue Coat) includes the option to block LGBT sites, a legal counsel at the company says the decision to do so belongs entirely to the school districts using the software.

In a letter sent to Knox County School Superintendent James McIntyre on February 10, 2009, we stressed that,  in addition to clear First Amendment violations,

the filtering scheme further engages in impermissible viewpoint discrimination by blocking sites that express acceptance and tolerance towards LGBT individuals but allowing sites that condemn homosexuality and sites that urge LGBT persons to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through so-called ‘reparative therapy’.

We encouraged the school district to take immediate action to resolve the matter, which they did not. The initial letter being disregarded, the ACLU sent a follow up letter on April 15, giving the school district until April 29, 2009 to agree to end this “unlawful censorship” by the start of the next school year. Failing to do so, Knoxville County Schools may find themselves ensnared in a legal battle in which they will be hard pressed to defend such clear violations of the First Amendment and student rights.

Filtering in schools has often been linked to federal funding and many see it as a necessity to protect young people. But while schools navigate this relatively new terrain, it is important they keep in mind students’ right to information. In fact, some advocates believe that students would actually be safer and have more learning opportunities without filters.  For more thoughts on the matter, see If You Don’t See Something, Say Something.

Read the ACLU of Tennessee’s Press Release