April 17, 2009 — -- Last December, when Andrew Emitt starting looking for college scholarships, he turned to his high school library, hoping to find Web sites that would guide him.
But the Tennessee 17-year-old is gay, and when he searched for organizations that might be friendly to LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) students, he hit a firewall.
What he discovered is that 107 schools in Tennessee -- including his, Knoxville Central High School -- use software that can block Web sites catering to gay issues.
Emitt couldn't find any education sites, but he could find those that promoted "reparative therapy," which promises to change homosexuals to heterosexuals.
"I wasn't looking for anything sexual or inappropriate," said Emitt. "I was looking for information about scholarships for LGBT students, and I couldn't get to it because of this software. Our schools shouldn't be keeping students in the dark about LGBT organizations and resources."
"It wasn't anything for entertainment value. It wasn't looking for games or for chat rooms or for e-mails or for dating. It was scholarships," he said.
Now, Emitt and another high school student from Nashville have joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union and threatened Metro Nashville and Knox County schools with a lawsuit, demanding they remove the filter to "educational and political" Web sites.
"If a gay student wanted to... get information about organizations that can help him, he wouldn't be able to," Metro High School student Eric Austin told ABC's affiliate in Nashville.
"It would be like an African American student not being able to get to the NAACP's Web site," said Austin, who is also seeking redress.
The ACLU claims these blocks violate the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Law.
"Schools are a place for education and part of education is preparing students to be participants in the political process," said Christine Sun, senior counsel with the ACLU's LGBT Project.
"With so many people getting news from the Internet, how can we expect students to be part of the political process if we shield them from one side of the debate?"
AMA Says Anti-Gay Sites 'Harmful'
Sun told ABCNews.com she had visited some of the "reparative therapy" Web sites that were permitted and "found some were sexually explicit."
The ACLU cites several medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, which deem the practice as "dangerous and harmful" to young people.
The ACLU sent an April 15 letter to members of the Tennessee Schools Cooperative: Dr. James McIntyre, Knox County Schools superintendent; Dr. Jessie Register, Metro Nashville Public Schools director and Dr. Lyle C. Ailshie, director of the Greenville City Schools, warning them of the impending lawsuit.
The cooperative -- which represents all but 30 schools in Tennessee -- was given until April 29 to respond and was asked to lift the blocks by next fall or face a lawsuit.
Russ Oaks, spokesman for Knox County Schools, told ABCNews.com, "We've received the information from the ACLU and we've referred it to the Knox County Law Director's office for review."
Tennessee Schools Cooperative purchases filtering systems from Education Networks of America (ENA), a Nashville-based technology company that serves schools, libraries and government agencies.
The company can block a variety of categories, including sites related to abortion, alcohol and pornography. On their Web site, the category "LGBT" is open to all schools, except those like Tennessee and Indiana, which are asterisked.
That category includes Web sites that "provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater to one's sexual orientation or gender identity including but not limited to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender sites."
"This category does not include sites that are sexually gratuitous in nature which would typically fall under the pornography category," according to the ENA Web site.
Some of the blocked sites are "well-respected" organizations, according to the ACLU, such as the Human Rights Campaign; Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, The Gay Straight Alliance; and the Gay-Lesbian Straight Education Network.
The ACLU says the category, which is separate from a pornography grouping, singles out and blocks "protected speech."
"Moreover," states its letter, "the filtering scheme engages in impermissible viewpoint discrimination" by blocking sites that are accepting and tolerant of gays.
Equal Access Act
The organization said this filter also violates the Equal Access Act because it prevents student groups like gay-straight alliances to "school resources and privileges" afforded other non-curricular clubs.
In 2001, Congress enacted the Children's Internet Protection Act to address concerns about access to "offensive content" over the Internet on school and library computers.
Since the, companies like ENA have provided filtering solutions with a database of categories from the company Blue Coat. School districts that contract with ENA decide which of those groups are appropriate for their students.
"We do not make those decisions, our customers do," said ENA President David N. Pierce.
ENA provides schools with an "authorized override" which gives certain teachers a password to access Web sites in a blocked category, "for a specific class or period of time or a research project," he told ABCNews.com
School districts can also request that a site within a category be reconsidered as appropriate and be permanently unblocked, he said.
"I expect Tennessee will meet on an emergency basis in the next few days and if they believe as a school system that we should unblock them, we will do what they tell us to do," said Pierce.
This is not the first time the ACLU has fought to stop filtering of gay Web sites. In Palm Beach County, Florida, in 2006, a high school teacher who was researching violence and discrimination against LGBT students, couldn't get access to GLSEN's site.
"The teacher was surprised that it was blocked," said Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, who worked with the ACLU to convince school officials that students deserved access.
Oddly, sites that used terms like "homosexual," instead of "gay" or "lesbian," were deemed appropriate, said Hoch. "Those sites condemned homosexuality."
"His students were uncomfortable enough and GLSEN was a good site to help them." he said. "It wasn't the least bit pornographic."
Conrad Honicker, 17, who has been active in Tennessee's LGBT organizations, was also surprised at similar blocks at Knoxville's West High School.
He, too, had trouble researching an English paper -- "Adverse Effects of Heterosexism in Society.'
"I couldn't find any research on the pros and cons," he told ABCNews.com. "
"It doesn't make sense because Knoxville County has a good anti-bullying policy," said Honicker, who wants to pursue gender studies and psychology in college and hopes to be a guidance counselor.
"My point is that students and teachers don't have access to these resources for anti-gay bullying, which is inconsistent with school policy that addresses the underlying homophobia in Tennessee schools."
His school's librarian, who also sponsors the gay-straight alliance, has sent her own letter of support to the ACLU.
"As librarians, we champion intellectual freedom across the board," said Karyn Storts-Brinks.
As for Emitt, who will attend community college in the fall to study education, he said Central High School has been generally supportive of its LGBT students, despite the block.
"I was shocked when I couldn't get on those Web sites," he said. "It was frustrating. I didn't really think it could be legal. I thought, 'Is this allowed?'"
The Tennessee School Librarians Association (TSLA) says it's not.
"If a student is not getting equal access, then it is censorship to some degree and it's not right," said TSLA President Bruce Hester, who is sending the ACLU a letter of support.
"As long as it's not pornography in nature and it's nothing elicit for students under 18, then I can think of no reasonable reason to deny access, by whatever name it goes by."