Since the passage of the Children’s Internet Protection Act in 2000, public schools have been required to use internet filters designed to shield students from pornography and obscenity. As one might suspect, the passage of the law has created a market for those peddling internet filters. It would be nice if someone actually rated different filters in terms of their effectiveness. To the best of my knowledge, no one has done that.
As a result, school systems are pretty much left to their own devices in figuring out what internet filtering system to adopt. And some times, as a recent story in the New York Times pointed out, it’s hard to tell whether school administrators are just trying to do the best they can or attempting to impose their own point of view.
Last month a United States District Court Judge in Jefferson City, Missouri, issued a preliminary injunction ordering Missouri’s Camdenton school district to discontinue its Internet filter system as currently configured. The judge wrote that the district’s filtering system systematically allows access to websites expressing a negative viewpoint toward LGBT individuals by categorizing them as ‘religion,’ but filters out positive viewpoints toward LGBT issues by categorizing them as ‘sexuality’.
She went on to add that any new system selected must not discriminate against Web sites expressing a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.
The issue is apparently still being litigated, but the facts seems pretty clear. The filtering system the Camdenton school district chose was having perverse effects. In a recent story, the New York Times described some of those effects.
Students using the computers at Camdenton High School here in central Missouri have been able to access the Web sites for Exodus International, as well as People Can Change, antigay organizations that counsel men and women on how to become heterosexual. But the students have not been able to access the Web sites of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. They have been able to read Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a Georgia statute criminalizing sodomy. But they have been blocked from reading Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that held that laws criminalizing sodomy were unconstitutional. They have been given access to scores of antigay sites, but not to those supportive of gay people.
How could something like that happen? In brief, it happened because the web filtering software used in the school district classified gay organizations in the sexuality category, which also screened out pornography. As a result, when the software filtered pornography, it also filtered out web sites supportive of gay causes. On the other hand, anti-gay Web sites were typically classified under the religion category or not categorized at all and thus allowed through the filter.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been trying to address this issue through a special campaign and every school district it has contacted about this has agreed to make changes in its filtering software to prevent this kind of bias. Except one. Yep, you’ve got that right. The Camdenton school district is the only one in the country that has fought efforts by the ACLU to eliminate bias from its web filtering software.
The district argues that it doesn’t discriminate against gay people. All you have to do is ask and school officials will unblock gay sites they consider legitimate. Of course, it’s the asking part that may be a problem. As that District Court judge who ruled against the school district pointed out, students may be deterred from accessing websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals either by the inconvenience of having to wait twenty-four hours for access or by the stigma of knowing that viewpoint has been singled out as less worthy by the school district and the community.
The court also concluded that other filtering systems are available that are much more effective at filtering out pornography and do so without burdening websites that express a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.
The story in the Times was a bit unclear as to whether the school district is prepared to accept this decision or whether it plans to appeal the case. If it does appeal, it will be pretty clear that school officials are less interested in screening out pornography and obscenity than in screening out positive points of view about LGBT individuals.
It never should have come to this in the first place, but it only goes to show that some communities and school systems are prepared to squander tax monies trying to defend what is indefensible.