November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Banning the Ban On LGBTQ Filters in Libraries

ban-lgbtq-libcompfilterCongressman Mike Honda (D-CA) is fed up with Internet filters in school and public libraries, specifically when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) materials. The congressman wants to ensure LGBTQ web resources are not blocked—and he’s written a bill, called the “Don’t Block LGBTQ Act,” to make that happen.

“As a former teacher and principal, I know how important public school libraries are to all students,” said Honda, by email. “The Internet is a powerful resource, and the LGBTQ community disproportionately relies on it. This is commonsense legislation that would ensure students have access to basic resources, for decisions such as coming out to their family and friends, finding health clinics or anti-bullying resources, or learning about the steps to transition.”

Internet filters are a common tool. Some parents use them with their children at home. Schools and libraries often apply them to web searches, particularly to prevent students from stumbling onto sites containing inappropriate material.

Yet some note that Internet filters may actually go against the very promise of what librarians are meant to do—to protect access to information.

“I can understand why this is a controversial issue because the foundational belief and value systems of some patrons are being censored if LGBTQ materials are banned or filtered from results,” noted Allison Mackley, the Derry Township School District library department chair for Hershey High School in PA. “As a librarian, I support the ALA Code of Ethics, which not only includes upholding ‘the principles of intellectual freedom and resist[ing] all efforts to censor library resources’ but also asks librarians to refrain from allowing their ‘personal beliefs to interfere with…access to their [library] information resources.'”

Filters can be crude, filtering pornography in one case, but information about breast cancer in another. Online communities designed for LGBTQ teens as well as other legitimate resources—can also be, and have been, blocked as well. That’s a problem, particularly for LGBT youth who are five times more likely to conduct web searches for information on sexuality or sexual attraction as non-LGBT youth, and nearly twice as likely to go online for information on health and medical concerns, according to a 2013 report, “Out Online,” from GLSEN, an organization that works to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer students.

“Generally, it’s not uncommon for schools to have Internet Service Providers (ISPs) put certain blocks and limitations on certain web sites,” says Kari Hudnell, senior manager of media relations with GLSEN.  “Often the goal is for students not to get to inappropriate content. Unfortunately what often happens is legitimate sites that students need to know about get blocked. Our web site can be blocked at times.”

Honda’s focus, then, is to make sure LGBTQ sites aren’t blocked at public schools and libraries—locations students use to research and source information not just for classwork, but for themselves. Currently, though, any public school or library that is subsidized for their Internet connection through the E-Rate program must have online filters in place to block material that is deemed dangerous to students, such as pornography. Honda’s bill, though, amends that requirement, forbidding LGBTQ sites from being blocked.

Many educators welcome a change to filtering, believing that they don’t work—or work too broadly. Children are also known to find ways to access blocked sites when they want to, says Sara Sayigh, the librarian at DuSable High School Campus in Chicago, IL.

“Sometimes sites are blocked that students might need for research,” she said by email. “Certain words trigger the filters. For example, curse words that students hear in the hallway every day are blocked. I think over the years it’s gotten a little better and we can now search breast cancer, for example. Another ‘goal’ of the filters is to block social media; however, teenagers always find ways around this.”

Honda introduced the bill earlier this year, but Congress is now in recess—and not due back until the middle of November. Although there is much support from groups across the country from the GSA Network of California to the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, bipartisan support in Congress is reportedly not there.

For students who want to research LGBTQ information and resources online, that means hoping their school or library either doesn’t have filters—or have amended filters to widen access. Yet that won’t be the case at every school and library, with the result being that some students won’t have access to the information they need.

“Ideally sex and health education classes would talk about sexual orientation and would talk about LGBTQ students, but unfortunately they don’t,” says GLSEN’s Hudnell. “Going on to the Internet is often the only access the students have.”

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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