Federal judge orders Camdenton schools to stop blocking gay websites

By HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH

Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal judge has ordered a central Missouri school district to stop using Internet filtering software to restrict access to educational websites about gay, lesbian and transgender issues.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey issued the preliminary injunction Wednesday against the Camdenton R-III School District at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union. The district has 30 days to comply.

As part of a national campaign, the ACLU sued the district last fall in federal court in Jefferson City on behalf of organizations whose websites were being blocked by the filter. The blocked organizations include the Matthew Shepard Foundation and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

The ACLU wasn’t concerned that sexually explicit content was blocked, but that some schools used filtering software to block purely educational sites.

Camdenton schools use urlblacklist.com to categorize web addresses. The company, Laughrey wrote, assigns categories to websites. Ones that express a positive view toward LGBT individuals are put into its “sexuality” category, which Camdenton blocks. Ones expressing a negative view toward LGBT individuals fall into the “religion” category, which Camdenton does not block.

The Camdenton School District allows students or employees to submit a request for access to a blocked website. School officials then view the site and decide whether to override the filtering service.

But Laughrey said the system doesn’t go far enough because it “stigmatizes, or at least burdens, websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals.”

She also noted that community members had testified in support of keeping the software, with one saying at a meeting, “If the parent allows this in the house, that’s one thing, but to do it outside the family circle, you usurp the authority of the parents.”

“These statements,” Laughrey wrote, “are direct evidence that Camdenton continued to use the provider, despite it being ineffective and falling below professional standards, out of an intent to continue to burden websites expressing a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.”

The filtering software company, urlblacklist.com, didn’t immediately respond to an email sent Thursday by The Associated Press.

The district’s attorney, Thomas Mickes, said the provider has made changes since the case was brought against the district. In an amendment filed Tuesday to a motion seeking to have the case dismissed, Mickes said the district found that the majority of the sites mentioned in the litigation were unblocked after the district rebooted its servers and ran updates Saturday. The district opened the remaining sites Tuesday, the motion said.

“The conclusions (Laughrey) reaches about the filtering system that we bought and use, that issue I think has been resolved,” Mickes said in a phone interview Thursday. “The filtering system has significantly revised its exclusion system and has dealt with most of those issues.”

He said he would meet Thursday with district officials to consider what to do next. He said options included filing an appeal or a motion for reconsideration.

But ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert said the changes didn’t fix the underlying problem.

“They did a little bit of fixing of a few websites, unblocking of a few websites,” Rothert said, “but the underlying system going forward continues to engage in viewpoint discrimination.”

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