ACLU Tackles Knox County Schools' LGBT Website Block

"We're really hoping they're going to change their mind," says ACLU attorney Tricia Herzfeld. "That they're all going to see that it's not appropriate" to block the sites.

Stop censoring gay education websites or we'll file a lawsuit—that was the message in an American Civil Liberties Union letter sent April 15 and addressed to Knox County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the Tennessee Schools Cooperative of Greeneville, Tenn.

[A sample of what's blocked in Knox County Schools ... or not]

For KCS officials, this was repeat information. The ACLU had mailed a letter to Superintendant James McIntyre on Feb. 10 about the issue—but didn't get the desired result.

"Generally, that letter was the same as the one we sent last week," says ACLU attorney Tricia Herzfeld. "We asked what the issue was, and asked them to research and find out who was responsible for checking that particular filtering category. There was not an adequate response."

Herzfeld declines to say who in the KCS system she spoke with in February. She says the ACLU has not been contacted by Knox County in response to the April 15 letter, in which it says filtering software provided by the Education Networks of America (ENA) "unlawfully blocks protected speech" in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) category, and sets April 29 as the deadline for those school districts to write of their intent to stop what the ACLU calls "censoring information that is central to discourse."

If the schools don't respond in the desired fashion? "We other remedies, including filing a lawsuit," says the letter.

Two Knoxvillians, Central High senior Andrew Emitt, 17, and Karyn Storts-Brinks, a librarian at Fulton High School in Knoxville, independently contacted the ACLU about the LGBT educational website blockades earlier this year.

Emitt didn't approach the ACLU until he'd tried a few other methods, he says. One of three co-founders of Central's Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in fall 2007, and co-president this year, he discovered he couldn't access the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) website or potential gay-student scholarship offerings on the school's computers, so he wrote the filtering company, ENA, a letter. "It responded by saying, ‘This is content your school system has chosen to block, and we cannot unblock it for you'—that's a paraphrase," he says.

Emitt next asked an instructor at Central to file a request to override the blocks with ENA. "Only a teacher can do that, and we just did GLSEN, to see what they would do," says Emitt. "But they said no. I didn't think it was worth going to the principal and school board when their filtering contractor had already said no, so I got in touch with the ACLU."

Storts-Brinks also reached out to the ACLU in January, although she says she's been battling the website filters since August 2007, both as a librarian assisting with research papers and as her school's GSA sponsor.

A researcher by profession, she notes that it takes careful study of ENA filter categories to realize that they're blocking LGBT educational and alternative lifestyle sites specifically, not just catching those sites in a wider net.

"What tends to be discussed is, ‘Isn't this just keyword blocking?' Sometimes that is the reason very innocuous things will get blocked. But in this circumstance, in looking at the sites that were blocked and the sites that were not blocked, the keyword question seemed to fly out the window. You had sites like Human Rights Campaign, which is approved by the National Education Association, and GLSEN, being blocked. Both have a clear line into the media, and the legislative issues. These are all things students need access to.

"What's not being blocked are sites that contain the words ‘gay' and ‘homosexual' and ‘lesbian' but are advocating, for example, that people change their sexual orientation."

The ENA does filter for porn, but that is considered a separate category than the alternative sexuality/lifestyles or LGBT categories, and porn could still be filtered even if a school district opted out of those ENA filtering categories.

"As this story is covered in newspapers and on the Web, there've been a lot of comments like, ‘Students don't need to be on the Internet at school anyway,'" Storts-Brinks says. "To me that shows a huge disconnect between the ways we're trying to educate students—the ways we need to prepare them for the expectations of the job market and further education. And when people say, ‘They should just use computers at home,' well, that's not a reality for many of my students. Our job as educators is to provide as much technology for the students as we can."

There's a lot the ACLU doesn't fully understand about who had the final word on the inclusion of the filters being switched on, says Herzfeld. "The way it's set up, when one state school district does a contract, as a cost-saving measure, other districts can sign the same contract; in this case, the Greeneville City Schools appear to have the original ENA contract."

The ACLU's April 15 letter says ENA was probably not the final arbiter on the decision to block LGBT websites: "According to legal counsel at ENA, the decision to block the LGBT category belongs to the individual school districts and/or to the school districts through the [Greeneville, Tenn.] Tennessee Schools Cooperative."

Storts-Brinks notes that KCS didn't have a lot of other options other than ENA. "I don't think there is anything remotely overt or malicious or intentionally censorious happening. I found out that ENA was one of only two options for filtering on school computers. Primarily it was going to be who can provide the service, who can be clear in the contract, who can we afford in the budget. Those concerns would have been primary.

"Knox County seems to be exonerated in its initial role. But now is the time for them to actively do something to halt the LGBT filtering."

In reference to questions about both the Feb. 10 ACLU letter to Knox County only and the more sweeping letter sent April 15, school system spokesperson Russ Oaks had identical responses. "All correspondence has been forwarded to the Knox County Law Director's Office for review," he says. "Additional information will be provided at a later time."

Knox County Law Director Bill Lockett did not return calls by the time this story was published.

The ACLU has threatened possible lawsuits, but Herzfeld says she doesn't want it to come to that. "We're really hoping they're going to change their mind—that they're all going to see that it's not appropriate and doesn't help students and that they'll unblock the category, however that happens."

Emitt anticipates action in time for him to do some research for the GSA or school papers before he graduates in May. "Hopefully Knox County at least will be cooperative and do it sometime soon," he says.

Even if unblocking doesn't benefit him personally, Emitt is glad he's sticking up for himself and others. "It's just a basic principle," he says, "They're discriminating against one viewpoint—it's censorship plain and simple."

The struggle may also influence Emitt's choice of further education, which will begin with classes at Pellissippi State in the fall. "I so wish I had a concrete answer when people ask me what I want to study in college," he says. "But I'm leaning towards education, planning on helping LGBT students and all students by being visible.

"Hopefully, by the time I'm going to be a teacher, it won't be so scary, and I can just be open."