Avoca School Superintendent Joseph Porto announced Friday that the American Civil Liberties Union was dropping threatened legal action over the district’s use of filtering software that blocked student access to educational websites about gay, lesbian and transgender issues.
But the ACLU, too, is claiming victory because Lightspeed Systems, a California firm that provides filtering software to schools, has agreed to revise its classification system in response to the publicized complaints against school districts, including Avoca District 37. The company expects to have the changes in place Monday.
In a May 12 letter to Avoca, the ACLU and the ACLU of Illinois demanded the district remove a filter it said was denying students’ access to educational sites that promote tolerance toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. The ACLU said the censorship amounted to unconstitutional discrimination based on viewpoint.
The sites were included in Lightspeed’s “education.lifestyles” category which covers gay and lesbian issues and alternative lifestyles.
Porto said last week there was no deliberate decision to block access to the sites mentioned in the ACLU’s complaint, which include the Gay Straight Alliance Network.
In response to the ACLU complaint, the superintendent asked staff to investigate what sites would be open to students if the district removed the block on the “education.lifestyles” category, which by default is unblocked unless a school district requests a block. The staff visited about 700 websites within the category.
“They found approximately 30 or more websites that could only be categorized as totally inappropriate — hard core pornography, soft core pornography, personal ads of a sexual nature, chat rooms of a sexual nature, places to buy sex toys. One site had condom ads. There was another site where kids took a survey of how ‘pure’ they were.”
Avoca serves about 640 pupils, between kindergarten and eighth grade and straddles Wilmette, Glenview, Northfield and Winnetka.
“If I had complied with the ACLU’s demand, it would have put our children at risk of exposure to totally inappropriate content. I am proud of my team.” Porto said the letter “was clearly threatened litigation” and gave the district until May 16 to respond.
John Knight, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Project for the ACLU of Illinois, said the civil liberties organization, on its website, asks school students and staff to report instances when certain sites are blocked. One such report related to Avoca.
“We think it is a problem that these companies are creating filters that (result) in schools engaging in viewpoint discrimination by keeping out positive sites,” said Knight, who suspects the Avoca censorship was inadvertent.
Knight said several other school districts removed the block on the “education.lifestyles” category after receiving the ACLU’s complaint.
Amy Bennett, spokeswoman for Lightspeed Systems based in Bakersfield, Calif., said the firm first learned of the issue in March after the ACLU lodged a complaint with the North Kansas City School District in Missouri. While the ACLU filed several other complaints in the interim, Avoca District 37 was only the second district to bring it to the company’s attention.
Bennett said all sites within the G-rated “education.lifestyles” category and the “adult.lifestyles” category are being reclassified under other headings without regard to the moral or sexual viewpoint. Because of the fluid nature of the web, categorizing is a community process, she said. The company’s website invites users to check the classification on a particular website and comment on whether the site should or shouldn’t blocked or has been placed in the wrong category.
“I think part of the good thing about our filter is that it is open in that way,” she said.
Lightspeed filters are used by four of the 15 districts that received letters this spring from the ACLU.