Updated: 3:38 p.m., June 2, with statement from school district
The ACLU of Georgia has issued a letter to the Gwinnett County schools district demanding that the system remove filters that effectively ban sites related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. After receiving a number of complaints, the American Civil Liberties Union decided to press forward with a warning in May: Keep blocking these sites to students, and legal action could be next.
The letter was issued May 23 and written to Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks. The ACLU asked that the school district respond to its complaint by May 30, a week later as it does with all complaints.
By June 1, the agency still had not heard anything from the district about the filters, said Chara Jackson, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia. The agency plans to follow up with Gwinnett County schools, but it wants to give the district the opportunity " to do the right thing."
Gwinnett County Public Schools could not immediately provide comment on Wednesday regarding the complaint, but Jorge Quintana, a spokesman for the school district, issued a statement regarding the letter on Thursday, June 2.
"We have received the letter from the ACLU and are looking into the concerns raised. Following guidelines from CIPA ( Children's Internet Protection Act), the school system does filter Internet content. That said, if a student or employee needs access to a site for a legitimate instructional or work purpose they can make a request for that access."
As part of the ACLU's "Don't Filter Me Campaign," students across the country have complained that the filtering software installed by the district was "configured to improperly censor websites advocating the fair treatment of lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender persons or reflecting the viewpoints of LGBT people." Overall, Jackson said the agency got more than 70 complaints from across the county about what the ACLU calls "viewpoint-based censorship."
The letter states that the Gwinnett County school district recently activated the specific Blue Coat filter, which is "designed to discriminate against LGBT viewpoints and does not serve a legitimate pedagogical purpose." Oftentimes, these filters trigger prohibition of LGBT related content, considering them sexually explicit or pornographic, the ACLU said.
“The administration at Brookwood High School has always been really supportive, but a few weeks ago the web filter system at our school was changed, and suddenly websites that I’d been using all year to plan activities for our gay-straight alliance club started being blocked,” said Nowmee Shehab, who recently graduated and was the president of the school's gay-straight alliance. “Students need to be able to find information about their rights and about suicide and bullying prevention, and now they’re not able to get to information that’s really important for them.”
If the school district continues to use the filers, the ACLU contends that Gwinnett County Public Schools would be in violation of the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act. The act allows for those students seeking to form gay-straight alliances to have equal access to school resources that are generally available to other non-curricular clubs.
"We hope that by promptly disabling the 'LGBT' filter, your school district will set a positive example and prompt other school districts to make sure that similar filters have not been activated on their own filtering software," the ACLU said in the letter.
The ACLU stated that it would look to pursue legal action if nothing is done. Already, the ACLU has sued two Tennessee school district regarding filtering software. In the Tennessee cases, both school districts entered into a settlement agreement to stop blocking access to LGBT-related website resources. Other districts have voluntarily changed their protocols.
All it takes, Jackson said, is changing the filtering level or settings on district computer systems. "It's such an easy thing to fix," she said.