Tennessee schools and students reach settlement in Internet censorship case

Two Tennessee school districts have agreed to stop blocking access to online information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues as a result of a settlement reached in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. A federal court dismissed the lawsuit against the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Knox County Schools after the settlement was reached.

The ACLU filed the case on May 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee against Metropolitan Nashville Public  Schools and Knox County Schools on behalf of three high school students in Nashville, one student in Knoxville and a high school librarian in Knoxville who is also the advisor of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). 

"We are pleased that a favorable agreement has been reached with the school departments without the need for further litigation. The schools rightly realized that students should be able to access the important information available on the educational Web sites that were being blocked," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group and lead attorney on the case. "This is an important step towards eliminating unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination."

As part of the agreement, the school departments have agreed to stop using "filtering software that blocks or otherwise places a barrier to student or faculty access to the LGBT sites." If they break this agreement, the case will return to the court.

About 80 percent of Tennessee public schools use filtering software provided by Education Networks of America. The ACLU sued the Nashville and Knox school districts after a high school student discovered that the software's default setting blocked sites categorized as LGBT, including the sites of many well-known LGBT organizations. However, the filter did not block access to Web sites that urge LGBT persons to change their sexual orientation or gender identity through so-called "reparative therapy" or "ex-gay" ministries – a practice denounced as dangerous and harmful to young people by such groups as the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association.

Internet filtering software is mandated in public schools by Tennessee law, which requires schools to implement software to restrict information that is obscene or harmful to minors. However, the "LGBT" filter category does not include material which is sexually gratuitous and already included in the "pornography" filtering category.

"We're pleased that these schools are finally living up to their legal obligation to allow the free and open exchange of ideas and information. Schools that censor educational information out of some misguided assumption that anything about LGBT people is automatically sexual or inappropriate are doing a disservice to their students," said Tricia Herzfeld, staff attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. "We are pleased that both school boards in this case have agreed to respect students' rights and refrain from this sort of censorship in the future."

In addition to Crump and Herzfeld, attorneys that worked on the case were Chris Hansen of the ACLU First Amendment Working Group and Christine Sun of the ACLU LGBT Project.

More information about the case, including the ACLU's complaint and a video featuring one of the student plaintiffs, is available online at: aclu-tn.org.

Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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