Joe Dellosa

Writing

"Gay/Lesbian" websites blocked by the School District of Palm Beach County


Notes & Context

inletspin.com was a quasi-official, pseudo-underground online school newspaper that I founded at my high school. Its biggest accomplishment was this news story, which broke the story of the school district's discriminatory web filtering policy that blocked LGBT advocacy websites while allowing anti-LGBT websites. (inletspin.com wound up being briefly blocked as a result, too.)

In any case, this article wound up winning an award, which led to local media picking up the story, which brought more attention to the issue, which attracted the attention of local LGBT groups that successfully pressured the district to change the policy.

All the while, administrators at my high school had no idea what was going on, because I'm not sure they knew what inletspin.com was exactly. Good times.

(Note: The links below are from the original 2006 article and may no longer work.)



Students trying to access the websites of gay advocacy groups like the Gay-Straight Alliance Network are greeted by a notice stating the District has chosen to block "Gay/Lesbian" websites.


The School District of Palm Beach County's web filtering policy blocks access to the websites of several gay and lesbian advocacy groups.

An inletspin.com investigation has shown that the websites of such prominent gay rights or advocacy organizations as Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (www.glaad.org), Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (www.pflag.org), Gay-Straight Alliance Network (www.gsanetwork.org), and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates (www.outandequal.org) are inaccessible using a District computer. Other blocked websites are those of the Human Rights Campaign (www.hrc.org) and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (www.glsen.org).

The District uses WebFilter, a web-filtering product produced by web communications company Blue Coat, to block websites. WebFilter works by compiling a database of over fifteen million websites, then classifying the websites into 58 categories (PDF file). Administrators of WebFilter can choose to block websites by category.

One of the 58 categories used by WebFilter is "Gay/Lesbian," which, according to the Blue Coat website, includes "sites that provide information, promote, or cater to gay or lesbian lifestyles."

Shawn Brinkman, a systems specialist at the District, explained the decision to block gay and lesbian issues websites by citing concerns about the appropriateness of such websites for younger students.

"We have to make judgments for all our users, which include Pre-K users," Brinkman said. "We don't have the technology to disallow and allow for certain age groups."

Brinkman said that the decision was one made on "common sense."

"I think common sense says [these websites are not] appropriate for four- or five-year-olds," he said, adding that these topics featured on those websites are ones parents would probably want to discuss with their children.

Ron Schlittler, Deputy Executive Director of PFLAG, expressed dismay at the District's decision to block websites like PFLAG's.

"I think it's a huge disservice to students to block them from important information that could be potentially lifesaving," he said. "It perpetuates a cycle of misinformation and ignorance about gay people and the reality of what their lives are all about."

In an email, Gay-Straight Alliance Network Executive Director Carolyn Laub wrote that her organization is "discouraged" to hear that its website is blocked from Palm Beach County students.

"Our site helps young people learn to stop violence and create safer schools," she wrote. "It is unfortunate that 'Gay/Lesbian' is a [blocked category] on the school district's filter because everyone, including high school students and young children, benefit from learning about diversity, and that opportunity is lost when all content related to LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] issues and LGBT history is censored in schools."

The website of Gay-Straight Alliance Network, as well as that of GLSEN, offers information and advice on starting "gay-straight alliances"—student organizations intended to give gay and straight students a safe and supportive place to meet and work against homophobia. Some schools in Palm Beach County, including Jupiter High School and Suncoast High School in Riviera Beach, have active gay-straight alliances in place.

One senior at Inlet Grove expressed disbelief that these sites are blocked.

"I can't believe they actually firewalled those sites," he said. "I mean, they're dot-orgs," he added, referring to the fact that these sites belong to non-profit advocacy organizations.

A junior attributed it to what he believes is the overzealousness of the District when it blocks websites.

"I think it's stupid that they blocked [those websites], but they had [scholarship website] FastWeb blocked for a year, so what do you expect?"

Another junior, however, sympathized with the District's point of view.

"[Viewing those websites] needs to be done at home, with parents," he said. "It's not discriminatory; it's simply stating that school is not the place for such activities."

inletspin.com also discovered several websites of organizations that did not support homosexuality that were not blocked. For instance, www.narth.com—the website of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality—was not blocked. The websites for the Traditional Values Coalition (www.traditionalvalues.org), the American Family Association (www.afa.net), and Focus on the Family (www.family.org), three organizations that feature material on their websites against gay rights, were not blocked, either.

However, none of those four websites are categorized by WebFilter as "Gay/Lesbian." NARTH's website is categorized under "Health" and the latter three are categorized as "Political/Activist Groups."

Update on 5/4/06: The websites of GLSEN and HRC do not seem to be blocked anymore. inletspin.com can confirm that both were blocked as recently as May 1st. According to Blue Coat's Site Review tool and two screenshots captured on May 1st (one, two), these websites were categorized as "Political/Activist Groups" in addition to "Gay/Lesbian." The other blocked websites mentioned in this article, which are still blocked, are only categorized as "Gay/Lesbian." However, it is unclear whether this is indeed the reason why these websites are accessible while the others are not.


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