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Web Filtering in Palm Beach, FL: Schools Blocks Access to LGBT Sites

In Palm Beach County, FL students and free speech advocates are branding their school district's internet filtering policies as web censorship. The school district's filtering software blocks access to the websites of a number of organizations that work on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Gay-Straight Alliance Network, and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.

At the same time, students are still allowed to visit the websites of the Traditional Values Coalition, the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), all organizations that work to curtail the rights of LGBT individuals and believe they can and should convert to heterosexuality.1

A student at Inlet Grove High School publicly revealed this disparity in access when he wrote an article for the high school's news site. The article was subsequently blocked by the district's web filter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has agreed to review the filtering policy at the request of the Palm Beach Human Rights Council, a local organization that has had access to its site blocked. A lawyer for the ACLU commented, “if their blocking software prevents kids, particularly middle and high school kids, from having access to information about gay rights and public health issues, but on the other hand allow access to religious group Web sites that are hostile to gay and lesbian legal rights and public health, that constitutes censorship.”2

The web-filtering software used by the district, WebFilter, classifies websites into categories and then allows an administrator to choose what categories to block. One of the categories used by WebFilter is “Gay/Lesbian,” which, according to the software maker's parent company, includes “sites that provide information, promote, or cater to gay or lesbian lifestyles.”3 While GLAAD and PLFAG fell into the “Gay/Lesbian” category, NARTH did not. NARTH is categorized as a “Health” website, despite the fact that it's the leading advocate for “conversion therapy.” “Conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” refers to psychotherapy aimed at changing a client's sexual orientation and eliminating all homosexual desires. It has been disavowed by nearly every major professional health and mental health association.4 The remaining unblocked organizations that feature anti-gay material are categorized as “Political/Activist Groups.”

Nancy Willard, a professor at the University of Oregon 's Center for Advanced Technology in Education has studied web filtering technology and notes that many web filters used in, or marketed to public schools contain religious or political bias in the make-up of their categories. She explains that some filtering companies tailor their services to conservative religious internet service providers or have partnerships with these conservative religious organizations.5

Web filtering in public schools can be traced back to the passage of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) signed into law in 2000. CIPA requires that all schools seeking federal funds install a “technology protection measure” to block access to material that is “harmful to minors.” Many of the web filtering companies Willard researched were involved in efforts to lobby for the passage of CIPA. The web filtering companies' main lobbying partners were conservative religious organizations.6 Willard shows that this close relationship with religious conservative groups has influenced the filtering software of even well-known web filtering companies. For example, Symantec, which offers a variety of web safety software, provides its filtering software, I-Gear, to many public schools. It also provides I-Gear to a long list of religious internet service providers (ISPs). Those religious ISPs advertise that I-Gear filters by “Biblical standards,” including filtering out “alternative lifestyles and the occult.”7

Willard's report did not contain information on WebFilter, but local advocates have pointed to the possibility that WebFilter's categories are politically motivated.8 District officials defended their policy of using filtering software, but expressed some dismay with the limitations of WebFilter. The administrator in charge of computer security said that it was necessary to err on the side of blocking more websites because of concerns about younger students, but agreed that the blocked sites may be fine for high school students.9

Local advocates have questioned whether it's necessary to block LGBTQ websites from the entire district, especially middle and high school students who may be uncomfortable soliciting information from adults. “We need to recognize the computer has become a community tool for students to reach out,” said Tony Plakas, president of the West Palm Beach-based Compass, a center for LGBT people.10

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 70% of teens ages 15–17 say they have used the Internet to look up health information. The study also tested some of the web filters most widely used in schools and libraries and found that, depending on administrator settings, the filters blocked anywhere from 2%–24% of all health sites. Even on the least restrictive settings, filters block an average of one in ten non-pornographic health sites resulting from searches on the terms “condoms,” “safe sex,” and “gay.” On the most restrictive settings, filters blocked 60% of all health sites resulting from the search terms “gay” or “lesbian.”11

One school board member committed to finding a way to address the filtering discrepancies, saying “perhaps the only good source of information in regard to this sensitive issue is the Internet.”12

The students and district officials are waiting on the ACLU review of the policy, but an update posted to the Inlet Grove High School 's news site states that the websites of two LGBT organizations (the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network and the Human Rights Campaign) have been unblocked.13 The remaining organizations categorized as “Gay/Lesbian” remain blocked.

References

  1. Christina DeNardo, “District's Uneven Blocking of Web Sites Draws Criticism,” Palm Beach Post, 9 May 2006, accessed 16 May 2006, <www.palmbeachpost.com/pbccentral/content/
    local_news/epaper/2006/05/09/s1b_skWEB_0509.html
    >.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Joe Dellosa, “'Gay/Lesbian' websites blocked by the School District of Palm Beach County,” InletSpin.com, 4 May 2006, accessed 16 May 2006, <www.inletspin.com/text/11.htm>.
  4. American Psychiatric Association, “Position Statement on Psychiatric Treatment and Sexual Orientation,” released 11 September 1998, accessed 19 August 2005, <www.psych.org>.
  5. Nancy Willard, Filtering Software: The Religious Connection ( Eugene, Oregon : University of Oregon, 2002), accessed 17 May 2006, <http://csriu.org/onlinedocs/documents/religious2.html>.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Dellosa.
  9. DeNardo.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Paul Resnick and Caroline Richardson, See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information ( Washington, DC : Kaiser Family Foundation, 2002), accessed 17 May 2006, <www.kff.org/entmedia/3294-index.cfm>.
  12. DeNardo.
  13. Dellosa.

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