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ACLU Issues Demand Letter to Maker of Software Filtering LGBT Websites

The ACLU has issued a letter to the software company Blue Coat, currently used by Gwinnett County Public Schools to censor LGBT resources.

On June 8, the ACLU issued a letter to the Blue Coat software company concerning their "LGBT" filter.

This is the most recent in a series of inquiries into how the school system is using the filter.  They previously contacted the Gwinnett County Public School Superintendent, J. Alvin Wilbanks, about possible misuse.  

The filter is an option that Blue Coat, the software used in Gwinnett County schools, offers to filter inappropriate material,

In the June 8 letter to Blue Coat, Joshua Block, a staff attorney for the ACLU 's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and AIDS Project, said:

"The response from Gwinnett County Public Schools reflects a disturbing trend
that we have seen with Blue Coat customers across the country. Despite the
fact that the “LGBT” filter is not designed to block adult content, public
schools have activated the “LGBT” filter on their Blue Coat software in the
mistaken belief that the “LGBT” filter blocks pornography and sexually
explicit materials."

As part of the “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," according to ACLU letters. Overall, Chara Jackson, legal director over the ACLU of Georgia, said the agency got more than 70 complaints from across the county about what the ACLU calls

The letter to Blue Coat 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 ACLU is now calling on Blue Coat to take prompt action to address this problem. The ACLU believes that Blue Coat should clarify the purpose of the “LGBT” filter, which does not include blocking sexual or pornographic material. It is not required by the Children's Internet Protection Act (“CIPA”), something that GCPS have maintained. 

They are also calling on Blue Coat to eliminate the “LGBT” filter entirely and provide their customers with viewpoint-neutral categories that do not single out “LGBT” viewpoints for special treatment. 

According Blue Coat's explanation of categories, the LGBT category is defined as: 

“Sites that provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity including but not limited to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sites. This category does not include sites considered sexually gratuitous in nature that would typically fall under the Pornography category.”

"Disturbingly, the 'LGBT 'filter appears to be designed specifically to target
websites for student gay-straight alliances ('GSA's), Block said in the June 9 letter.

Those websites being filtered appear to block access to a wide array of educational resources, including the It Gets Better Project, the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, the Human Rights Campaign, and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). Students were able to access those sites before the filter was activated, according to Nowmee Shehab a former student at Brookwood High School in Snellville.

The ACLU asserts that any public school using the “LGBT” filter is violating the law. The First Amendment requires that when a public school blocks student access to speech, it must do so in a view-point neutral manner. 

It is also violating the Equal Access Act, which requires public secondary schools to provide Gay-Straight Alliances with “equal access to the same avenues of communication as other noncurriculum related groups,”  the ACLU said in its inquiries.

Blue Coat has known about the misuse of the software since 2009 but has made no efforts to solve the issue, according to the ACLU, which has sued two school districts in Tennessee for the same thing then. 

"Yet, Blue Coat has done nothing to prevent the same misuse from continuing
in school districts across the country," the ACLU's Block said in the recent letter. "Blue Coat bears a large share of responsibility for causing this illegal
censorship to occur."

According to Jorge Quintana, spokesman for the school district, the issue remained unresolved this week. He was contacted on June 8, following the newest letter from the ACLU.

In an original statement from the district, issued on 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."

Snellville Patch will keep you updated on this developing story.

Tripp June 09, 2011 at 02:29 AM
The ACLU is an evil organization. The need to be put out of business. Gwinnett County Schools have the right to run things the way they see fit and the ACLU needs to stay out of it and all the other stuff they get into.

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