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NJ school district stops filtering gay, transgender, other sites after ACLU action

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST : A New Jersey school district has removed filters that blocked lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-related websites after the American Civil Liberties Union began asking questions.

The inquiry is part of a national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign by the ACLU and Yale Law School to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems, ACLU representatives said Monday.

“Public schools have a duty to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project.

The Vineland School District in Cumberland County had been using filtering software provided by Blue Coat, which has a specialized filter called “LGBT.”  The district removed the filters from its high school computers on March 31, 2011 – just days after the ACLU of New Jersey submitted an open records request for documents about filtering software.

The district subsequently agreed to remove the LGBT filter from middle school computers, as well.

ACLU affiliates in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia sent letters today demanding school districts in their states stop similar viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward LGBT communities.

“This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites,” Block said. “These filters are designed to discriminate and are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or inappropriate.

“As long as the anti-LGBT filter is in place, students will be confronted with a demeaning and stigmatizing message that the site has been blocked on account of its LGBT-related content.”

Two students at Vineland High School had been complaining to their school for three years about various LGBT websites being blocked, the ACLU said.

“What really hit this home for me was when I was writing a paper for class about Harvey Milk, but every site with information about his life was blocked for having ‘LGBT content,’” said one of them, Justin Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior.

(Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S.; his birthday is a state holiday in California.)

Shaun Laurencio, an 18-year-old senior, said he and Rodriguez had to keep going back to administrators each time they hit another obstacle.

“At first they’d unblock whatever specific site we’d asked about, but after awhile they stopped unblocking the sites,” Laurencio said. “It was really discouraging.”

The ACLU of New Jersey has also filed open records requests with 26 districts in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, requesting contracts with Internet-filtering software providers, policies about the use of the software and any communication with software vendors that mention filters related to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender-related content.

A video showing students how to test whether or not their schools are illegally filtering content, and providing instructions for reporting censorship, can be found at: Don’t Filter Me

Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out a form at: action.aclu.org/dontfilterme

More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found at: www.aclu.org/safeschools

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