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Thompson Coburn successfully challenges school district’s censoring of LGBT websites

February 16, 2012

In partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union, Thompson Coburn attorneys have secured a federal court ruling barring a central Missouri school district from censoring websites supportive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled February 15 that the Camdenton R-III School District must discontinue its use of an Internet filtering system that systematically blocks pro-LGBT web content.

Four Thompson Coburn attorneys worked on the case pro bono and logged hundreds of hours of work.

“This decision is a strong ruling against viewpoint discrimination in schools,” said Mark Sableman, a Thompson Coburn partner who focuses on Internet and new media law. “It builds on the First Amendment principle that no government official or entity should prescribe what is orthodox or officially approved. Everyone, including students, should be free to explore all viewpoints on issues of importance.”

Liz Blackwell, a former Thompson Coburn partner and products liability litigator, also worked on the case. “Judge Laughrey’s decision is an important step toward ensuring that students have access to information on both sides of important social issues,” Blackwell said. “Even those who disagree with the particular viewpoints protected by the court’s decision can be grateful that, in this country, government cannot limit speech to only those viewpoints it favors.”

At an October hearing on a motion for preliminary injunction, Thompson Coburn presented critical testimony from an expert witness on filtering software for schools. The witness, David Hinkle, testified that Camdenton’s filter, URL Blacklist, clearly discriminated against LGBT websites. In addition, he testified that he conducted tests of the school’s filtering software and discovered it failed to block sexually explicit content as comprehensively as other commercial filters. 

Hinkle also pointed out that Camdenton’s list of blocked LGBT sites mirrored a global list of high-quality informational sites that express positive viewpoints about LGBT individuals. Judge Laughrey noted in her decision that, “whether by design or error, it is clear that URL Blacklist systematically burdens access to this viewpoint.”

Another witness presented by Thompson Coburn, Dr. Barbara Stripling, testified that the school’s filtering system didn’t meet professional standards. Stripling, the former director of School Library Services for the New York City Department of Education, testified that when a school blocks sites expressing alternative viewpoints, the information on those sites becomes stigmatized and negatively affects the entire school community.

Thompson Coburn attorneys Jeff Fink and Allison Manger also worked on the case.

The case is Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc., et al. v. Camdenton R-III School District, et al., U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, Central Division, 2:11-cv-04212.