When Maison Fioravante decided to focus her research on LGBT social issues for a class project, she discovered that her access to related sites was blocked by a software called Smoothwall, which filtered web content that the school’s administration deemed inappropriate.
Fioravante is a junior at Governor Mifflin Senior High School, which is located about an hour outside of Philadelphia in Shillington, Pennsylvania.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took immediate action in order to defend Fioravante’s First Amendment right to free speech and her rights through the Equal Access Act, which necessitates equal access to all educational resources.
Staff Attorney Josh Block at the National ACLU LGBT project told 429Magazine that “public schools cannot block library materials because schools can’t censor ideas from the library. Students need to be able to access LGBT material online. The Internet is the library for most students in the 21st century.
“We were receiving complaints from across the country so we needed to elevate this issue to a higher level,” Block added.
“It’s wrong for my school to determine that this kind of information is too sensitive for the student body,” said Fioravante. She believes it is of the utmost importance for LGBT students questioning their sexual identities to be able to access these sites as well as students who “simply want information for school projects.”
Fioravante noticed she was able to see pages that condemned homosexuality, but was unable to enter websites for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Safe Schools Coalition.
The filtering system Smoothwall contains two problematic filters, according to the ACLU.
The “sexuality” filter blocks sites that support LGBT people. The “intolerance” filter restricts access to political advocacy sites that may be identified as intolerant such as the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.
Last year, the ACLU filed a similar federal lawsuit against a school district in Camdenton, Missouri. When active web censorship occurs against a certain group of people, it can be seen as viewpoint-discrimination, the rights organization argues.
The Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) v. Camdenton R-III School District case was settled after the court issued a preliminary injunction requiring the school district to stop engaging in viewpoint-discriminatory filtering.
Block urges the necessity for schools to use viewpoint-neutral filtering systems.
“The problem is with schools buying these discriminatory products. They need to take responsibility,” said Block.
“The laws make it clear that filtering systems must be viewpoint-neutral and schools have an obligation to abide by these rules. They must reconfigure the software so it complies with the first amendment.”
On behalf of Fioravante and the rest of the student body at the Governor Mifflin School District, the ACLU has sent a formal letter to the school’s administration insisting that they end discriminatory Internet filters. The letter summons school officials to re-configure their filtering software by March 14. If the school district does not comply with their request, the ACLU will proceed with legal action.
Assistant Superintendent Eric Wolf of the Governor Mifflin School District told 429Magazine that they “have no comment on the matter and will not answer any questions.”
“We’re waiting to hear from them … hopefully they will do the right thing,” said Block.