School Internet filter sparks controversy

Photo by Jason Braverman

Photo by Jason Braverman

SUWANEE -- Gwinnett County Public Schools is looking into concerns raised by a civil rights group about an Internet filter that blocks some websites about sexual orientation, a spokesman said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sent a letter to Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks on May 23 stating it had received complaints that the school system was blocking access to websites with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-related materials.

In the letter, ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Chara Fisher Jackson said the use of the LGBT filter violates both the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act.

"The 'LGBT' filter is designed to discriminate against LGBT viewpoints and does not serve a legitimate pedagogical purpose," the letter states. "We hope that by promptly disabling the 'LGBT' filter, your school district will set a positive example and prompt other school districts to make sure that similar filters have not been activated on their own filtering software."

The letter asked Wilbanks to respond by May 30 to indicate whether the school system intends to disable the filter, warning that continued censorship could lead to legal liability. Jackson said the ACLU had not received a response as of Tuesday.

Gwinnett County Public Schools spokesman Jorge Quintana confirmed the letter had been received.

"Following guidelines from CIPA (Children's Internet Protection Act), the school system does filter Internet content," Quintana said, adding that filters have been in place since the early 1990s. "That said, if a student or employee needs access to a site for a legitimate instructional or work purpose they can make a request for that access."

Jackson said the LGBT filter can be disabled without posing any risk of violating CIPA. According to the software company's description of the filter, the category is designed to block sites that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or pornographic, she said.

She also said that unblocking individual LGBT-related websites upon request is not an appropriate solution to the problem.

"It is unfair and burdensome to force students to seek special permission every time they wish to access a website that reflects LGBT-related viewpoints when, in contract, students may freely access other viewpoints without seeking such permission," the letter states. "There is no reason why the burden should be placed on a vulnerable population to affirmatively request that school administrators unblock websites for LGBT resources that they already have a legal right to access."