"Does your school's Internet filter censor GLBT-themed websites?" That's the question being asked by the ACLU after teens began reporting that they were unable to access sites like the Gay / Straight Education National Network (GLSEN) at school.
These days, it is the rare school that doesn't have any Internet filtering software installed. I know I first encountered Internet filters while teaching sex ed in the Bronx, NY a number of years ago. I had given my students an assignment where they had to go onto both the Rutgers University site, sxetc.org, and (the now defunct) Planned Parenthood teen site, teenwire.com, to research STDs. But as kid after kid discovered, both were blocked. And it wasn't just the kids who were having problems.
Shortly after, I was unable to register for a conference related to teen sexual health that my employer was sending me to since the title of the conference had the word "sex" in it. Instead of getting to a page directing me how to pay and giving me directions to the hotel, typing the site's url triggered the warning: "Caution! You are blocked from this site. Reason: Pornography." I was irritated, complained and the filter was downgraded, and I chalked the experience up to ignorance and an over-reliance on a device.
I allowed myself to feel that way because while I disagree with schools that claim that they need filters to prevent kids from, say, learning how to make a bomb at school, or from watching porn when they should be doing calculus, and that filtering out perfectly appropriate material is just a casualty of a new form of technology, at least I can see the rational of this argument. But there is something else altogether going on when GLBT sites are filtered out.
With most filters, schools get to choose the categories that they want blocked. These include the expected things, like "pornography," "adult entertainment," "lingerie" and "graphic violence." Schools can also choose to include categories like, "sex education." And, they can also add any terms that they want censored. This can mean a block on the words "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender."
And sadly, plenty of schools do add these words. The consequence? For at least one student, trying to get on the GLSEN website resulted in a message that read: "You have been denied access to the website glsen.org as it is categorized as LGBT. [Student's name] your Internet usage has been monitored and logged."
Not only is this upsetting and terrifying (you are being monitored and logged??), but according to the ACLU, it is also is against the law. As they report,
"Some schools have improperly configured their web-filtering software to illegally censor LGBT-related websites such as the GSA Network and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. At the same time that they block access to websites for positive LGBT rights organizations, those schools still allow access to anti-LGBT sites that condemn LGBT people or urge us to try to change our sexual orientation. This is called viewpoint discrimination, and it's illegal. "
Whatever the arguments are for Internet filters, blocking kids from crucial information is never okay. If you think this is going on at your school, please contact the ACLU. Everyone has a right to accurate information about sexual orientation and schools have a legal and moral obligation to provide it.