Beverly Goldberg, American Libraries Online Posted on May 20, 2009
A Knox County, Tennessee, high school librarian and one of her students, as well as two secondary-school students in the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, became the plaintiffs May 19 in a First Amendment lawsuit against the school districts for blocking access to information about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered issues on school computers while allowing access to anti-gay sites.
Franks v. Metropolitan Board of Public Education was filed in U.S. district court by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Tennessee on behalf of the four, all of whom are involved in their respective schools’ Gay-Straight Alliance Club but who cannot access the clubs’ parent website on campus workstations. However, students and faculty can access the sites of groups that condemn gay sexuality and promote therapy, including the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality and the Traditional Values Coalition.
The blocking of LGBT sites was discovered in December 2008 by Andrew Emitt, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School in Knoxville. “I wasn’t looking for anything sexual or inappropriate,” Emmit explained in an April 15 statement issued by the ACLU. “I was looking for information about scholarships for LGBT students, and I couldn’t get to it because of this software.” The ACLU wrote (PDF file) school officials cautioning that the civil-rights organization would take legal action if sites remained inaccessible after April 29. Metro Nashville’s Department of Law responded (PDF file) May 6, “Unblocking this particular category of websites is not a simple task [and] there are many issues to consider.”
The lawsuit contends that the two school systems blocked access through the Education Networks of America’s customizable Blue Coat filter to the blocking software’s LGBT category, defined by ENA as including “sites that provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity [which] may include adult content, chat capabilities and personals.” Metro Nashville and Knox County school districts are two of more than 100 Tennessee school districts sharing the networked filter through the Greenville City Schools Consortium, although the blacklist and whitelist settings are configurable “for as many exclusive locations as desired,” according to the firm’s website (PDF file).
The filter “only allows students access to one side of information about topics that are part of the public debate right now, like marriage for same-sex couples,” asserted Karyn Storts-Brinks, librarian at Fulton High School in Knoxville and one of the four plaintiffs. The other three are Keila Franks and Emily Logan, who are enrolled in Metro Nashville’s Hume-Fogg High School, and Bryanna Shelton, who attends Fulton High School.
Acknowledging that the districts must, as recipients of the e-rate telecommunications discount under the Children’s Internet Protection Act, prohibit the display of online material that is considered harmful to minors, the complaint (PDF file) goes on to argue: “Because the defendants have already elected to block access to Adult/Mature, Pornography, Chat/Instant Message, and Personals, they do not need to block access to the LGBT category to block access to content in those areas,” adding that the mandate applies only to “visual depictions” anyway.