ACLU warns suburban district on LGBT filtering

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The Downingtown Area School District was put on notice last week about its policy of preventing students from accessing LGBT web content.

The national and Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a letter to the district on Monday demanding it lift its ban on LGBT content.

Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said a district representative has contacted her but they have not yet determined their policy moving forward.

The district did not return a request for comment from PGN.

The Downingtown Area School District encompasses 10 elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools in Chester County, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia.

The ACLU letter was one of several notices sent out this week to districts across the country that were determined to be blocking LGBT content through the agency’s Don’t Filter Me initiative. The program calls on students to test their schools’ filters by performing LGBT-related searches, and reporting schools that ban such pages.

Roper said Downingtown is the first in Pennsylvania to have a verified complaint against it, but she doesn’t believe it’s the only district in the state to employ such a policy.

She said the subject matter included in the Downingtown filter was not objectionable, but informative for LGBT or questioning students.

“These are essentially perfectly innocuous websites, like how to organize a Day of Silence,” Roper said. “We’re not talking about sex, but things like student-organizing sites and GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network]. Anything about gay culture or gay students was blocked. You could go on a website about college scholarships but you couldn’t get to a website about scholarships available to LGBT students.”

The ACLU cautioned the Downingtown district that such filters violate students’ constitutional free-speech rights, as well as the Equal Access Act — which guarantees students equal access to resources for extracurricular activities — as it prevents gay-straight alliances from seeking information.

Roper said the filtering setup the Downingtown Area School District employs could be easily manipulated to lift the LGBT block.

“It has a lot of different settings and this is something that could be changed with one click,” she said. “That would solve the whole problem. They don’t need to buy new software or anything, just change one setting.”

In the letter, the ACLU gave the district until April 22 to begin discussions.

Roper said that if the district is not amenable to changing its policy, the agency is prepared to sue, but expects to be talking with the district soon.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].