Missouri School Illegally Censoring the Internet, Draws ACLU Attention

Don't tread on my access to health information.
Don't tread on my access to health information.
Updated at 4:50 p.m. with comment from school district's attorney.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. with comment from the school superintendent.

A school district in central Missouri is illegally censoring the internet, the ACLU says, and the organization is demanding that they stop. The school's content filtering system violates First Amendment rights, as well as the Equal Access Act, by blocking access to any sites concerned with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri today sent a demand letter to the Camdenton R-III school district, letting officials know that they've received complaints about the district's filtering software. The letter demands that the district take action by the end of the month.

School districts typically apply content filtering to the internet, says Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. That's as it should be -- the filters block things like pornography. But often, district administrators will also check that the software should block any content relating to "sexuality," which often leads them afoul of the law.

Blocking sites deemed related to "sexuality" means that, for instance, kids can't access educational information or anti-bullying information. They can view content relating to the Republican party, but they can't browse GOProud.org, a policy-related site for conservative LGBT folks.

"The policy reason is because kids need access to positive information about sexuality and about what it means to be LGB or T," Rothert tells the Daily RFT. "There's also the legal reason," the Equal Access Act, "that when the government makes information available they can't discriminate based on viewpoint."

The Camdenton R-III district came to the ACLU's attention through an initiative called "Don't Filter Me." Students can test their school's filters, and then alert the ACLU if it turns out that content they have a right to see has been blocked. (To test your school's filter, check out their site.)

"It's a problem across the country and we're still trying to figure it out," says Rothert. "A lot of schools don't know and this may be true with Camdenton."

Rothert says it's an easy fix. Most filtering software, including the human-verified URL Blacklist, which the ACLU says Camdenton is using, has options for what's blocked. The school's attorney, Tom Mickes, says the district is not using that system, but one the district created. Checking "adult" and "pornographic" categories weed out the things students legally shouldn't see, while blocking "sexuality" is redundant and, in many cases, illegal. Mickes says the term "sexuality" is very broad, and some things flagged under that are, in fact, objectionable.

Camdenton superintendent Tim Hadfield tells Daily RFT that he's read the ACLU's letter, and that the district's attorney, Mickes, is looking it over and crafting a response.

"We were not explicitly filtering anything regarding alternative lifestyles," Hadfield says. "We do want to protect our students, but in no way limit the rights of our students either."

The filter, says Mickes, "permits some things to go through that the ACLU likes and doesn't permit others. We set that up to protect children, not to make the ACLU happy." Mickes adds that any group could look at their system and object to parts of it. But he says he's confident that the system treads the line between protecting kids and giving them access admirably.

Mickes says he responded to the letter, but declines to share his response. His letter, he says, acknowledges receipt of theirs.

"We're not picking fights," he says. "We don't utilize the system they object to. We have our own. It permits access to some things they like and some they don't."

It's important to note, says Rothert, that the ACLU is not saying that Camdenton is deliberately censoring the internet. Based on Hadfield's comments, they don't appear to be doing so intentionally. Many districts across the country, when contacted by the ACLU, have fixed the problem once they were made aware of the mistake.

"Many districts across the country, and even in Missouri, have gotten a letter and changed it," Rothert says.

Editor's note: This post was updated at 3:30 p.m. to include comments from Camdenton Superintendent Tim Hadfield.

The post was edited again at 4:50 p.m. to include comments from school attorney Tom Mickes.

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