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District's uneven blocking of Web sites draws criticism

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Millions of Web sites are off limits to Palm Beach County students because they promote violence, racism and pornography, but some are criticizing the district for taking censoring too far.

The district has blocked access to gay and lesbian advocacy Web sites, including one belonging to a local group that serves gay youth, while allowing students to surf sites for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, Traditional Values Coalition, the American Family Association and Focus on the Family — organizations that oppose gay rights.

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The American Civil Liberties Union will review the policy this week.

When students or teachers try to log on to sites such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Gay-Straight Alliance Network and Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, they are greeted with a notice that says the site is blocked.

The reason: it falls within the gay/lesbian category.

Bob LaRocca, who oversees computer security, says the district's filtering software automatically blocks sites to comply with the Child Online Protection Act and the Children Internet Protection Act. He also pointed out that content is not the only factor. The district also blocks sites with chat rooms to prevent viruses.

Though he acknowledges the sites may be fine for high school children, concerns about younger students accessing them keeps them off limits for everyone.

"Someday, when we can differentiate who is going through the sites, things may change," he said. "But there is no technology out there to do that. When you have 200,000 users, how do you judge how old someone is? It's impossible, so we have to treat it so it's the youngest child."

Forest Hill High teacher Michael Wood, who served as the sponsor for Boynton Beach High's Gay-Straight Alliance last year, said blocking gay advocacy Web sites sends a negative message to students.

"One of the things we tell kids is that when you hit the firewall, it's a bad thing," he said. "I agree with filtering, but now they are going to see gay/lesbian and associate that with something that is bad."

Advocates also say the sites provide information and resources for students, who may be uncomfortable soliciting it from adults.

"We need to recognize the computer has become a community tool for students to reach out," said Tony Plakas, president of the West Palm Beach-based Compass, a gay and lesbian center.

The censorship prompted the Palm Beach Human Rights Council — access to its site also is blocked — to reach out to the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, a civil rights group, for help.

James Green, an ACLU lawyer, plans to review the case this week. The ACLU has sued in the past over censorship on the Web. In 2002, the Georgia ACLU filed a free-speech lawsuit on behalf of the Gay Guardian newspaper, claiming that a public library barred the newspaper from the library's free literature area.

"If their blocking software prevents kids, particularly middle and high school kids, from having access to information about gay rights and public health issues, but on the other hand allow access to religious group Web sites that are hostile to gay and lesbian legal rights and public health, that constitutes censorship," Green said.

"That's a lot of power, to decide what information is given," said Rand Hock, founder of the Human Rights Council. "There has to be a better way the school district can strike a balance than blocking all access to all students."

School board member Paulette Burdick agrees.

"Perhaps the only good source of information in regard to this sensitive issue is the Internet," she said. "We need to figure out a way to address this."

Inlet Grove High senior Joe Dellosa recently wrote about the censorship in a story for the school's online news site, Last week, he won an award for the story. Those wanting to read his article, however, will have some problems.

It's been blocked.

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