‘LGBT Content. Access Denied’

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance who worked at the local college where I was teaching had trouble sending and receiving emails. She couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out why. Then an IT administrator clued her in: Her first name—Gay—triggered the school’s Internet filters. They were set to block any references to homosexuality, gender identity, etc.

There is something weirdly amusing about trying to enforce ignorance in places of learning. Or it would be amusing if it didn’t run so counter to the educational mission. Thankfully, the school changed its filter settings, and Gay can now happily communicate with her colleagues.

This battle, however, continues to be fought piecemeal at public schools across the country.

Recently, the same “block that website!” policy put Maryland’s Harford County Public Schools in the news. When students at Havre de Grace High have Web-searched for info relating to gay rights, LGBT resources, or Gay-Straight Alliances, their Googles have hit the Great Wall of Nitwittedness.

 “We got this message that said, ‘LGBT Content. Access denied,’” Kate Hickey told WJZ.com. Hickey, a former Havre de Grace student, has continued to challenge her alma mater’s policy, though she’s now moved on to college. Blocked content includes the websites of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC); the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). We’re talking websites where bullied students could seek help, miserable students could seek support, and ambitious students could seek scholarships. Pornography, of course, is blocked whatever sexual orientation might be involved.

To add insult to ignorance, the filters do allow access to anti-gay sites, according to Alli Harper, a lawyer working with Hickey and the ACLU to confront Harford’s policy. Yep, the American Civil Liberties Union is now on the case.

If their Internet filters allow it, administrators at Harford County Schools should send an urgent email to school districts in Tennessee for ideas on how to make this mess go away. Last June, the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Knox County Schools retreated after the ACLU brought suit challenging the same policies as Harford County’s. These Tennessee districts quickly back-pedaled, adjusting their filters to permit access to educational and political websites concerned with LGBT issues. “We’re pleased that these schools are finally living up to the legal obligation to allow the free and open exchange of ideas and information,” said ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump.

Considering all the recent flak deservedly taken by China over its censorship of Google, you would think leaders in U.S. schools might show more faith in the “free and open exchange of ideas.” Thank goodness the ACLU and young free-speech fighters like Kate Hickey are here to offer reminders of rights and what’s right.

Districts like Harford can adjust their Internet filters now or wait and hope that nobody notices—and that the ACLU doesn’t come calling.