[author: Maria Mazza]
In a recent decision, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc. v. Camdenton School District, a federal district court in the Western District of Missouri held that a school district violated the First Amendment by employing an internet filtering software that blocked websites expressing a positive viewpoint toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
The school district used an internet filtering product called URL Blacklist which was comprised of several filters in order to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). CIPA requires schools to protect children using school computers from viewing visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors. The school district enabled the filters blocking advertisements, pornography, mixed adult, and sexuality in order to control the subject matter that network users could access on the internet.
PFLAG argued that the school district’s filtering system burdened websites expressing a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals. The district court agreed, finding that the sexuality filter used by the school district had the effect of filtering out positive material about LGBT issues, as well as pornographic materials. PFLAG identified 41 websites blocked by URL Blacklist’s “sexuality filter” that expressed a positive viewpoint toward LGBT issues. PFLAG tested these websites on five other internet filter systems used to help schools comply with CIPA, none of which blocked any of the websites. The district court also found that the school district’s filtering system had the effect of allowing access to websites expressing a negative viewpoint toward LGBT issues by categorizing the websites in its “religion” category. Because the school district continued to use the filtering system after having been advised by the American Civil Liberties Union of the viewpoint discriminatory effect of the filtering system, the district court concluded that the school district had intentionally discriminated based on viewpoint in violation of the First Amendment.
Further, the district court noted that the filtering system’s procedure for requesting that individual websites be unblocked deterred and stigmatized students making such requests. It was not clear that the process for requesting that a website be opened was truly anonymous because the request form encouraged students to enter a username derived from their real name. The district court concluded that the lack of anonymity could deter students from making such a request.
This decision demonstrates the importance of carefully reviewing the types of websites that are blocked by an internet filtering system. An overly broad system may violate the First Amendment if the filter blocks websites that express specific viewpoints which are not contrary to CIPA. In addition, districts should review the procedures for students to request that websites be unblocked to ensure that such a process allows a student to remain anonymous.