ACLU's 'Don't Filter Me' campaign makes sense

The Trevor Project is an organization devoted to preventing suicides among gay and lesbian teenagers. It has been honored by the White House. But some students have been barred from accessing the group's website using school computers, even though the schools allow them to view all sorts of other sites, including some with anti-gay messages. This censorship of gay-themed, non-sexually explicit sites has resulted in an American Civil Liberties Union campaign called "Don't Filter Me!" It's good advice, and not just because it might spare a school district a lawsuit.

The original culprits in this snafu are not the schools but commercial Internet filtering programs that block gay-themed sites, however innocuous, along with more explicit sites that may include material — heterosexual or homosexual — that would be inappropriate for students. It's the schools, however, that make the final decision on what is filtered. Some schools may have consciously banned sites such as the Trevor Project on the erroneous assumption that students can (and should) be shielded from discussions of homosexuality. Others genuinely thought they were blocking only pornography. Either way, the result has been censorship.

Filtering programs also have blocked the sites of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, another White House honoree). That's fine with some social conservatives, who see such sites as propagating a "homosexual agenda," a fair charge only if one defines the agenda as preaching respect for gay people. But even if one sees such sites as polemical, the same is true of anti-gay-rights websites such as the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage, which students are free to view.

As a result of the "Don't Filter Me!" campaign, some providers of filters are changing their software, and several school districts — including the Rowland Unified School District and the Oroville school district in California — have agreed to unblock non-sexual, gay-themed content. The ACLU is also suing a school district in Missouri over its filtering policy, arguing that it violates students' rights under a 1982 Supreme Court decision preventing schools from removing controversial books from their libraries.

That is a weighty legal argument, but the paramount reason for schools to stop blocking these sites is educational. Within sensible limits (such as a restriction on sexually explicit material), allowing students to browse the Web expands their horizons and, in the case of sites like the Trevor Project, could save their lives. It shouldn't take a warning letter from the ACLU to convince school administrators of that proposition.

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