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School board settlement with ACLU stirs anger in Missouri town

By Donald Bradley, McClatchy Newspapers –

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nothing stirs up a small town quite like the American Civil Liberties Union.

When attorneys for that group demanded that the high school in Camdenton, Mo., stop using an Internet filter that discriminated against gay-friendly websites, folks packed school board meetings.

How dare this New York City bunch come in here and tell how us to raise our kids!

They wanted to fight. The local tea party rallied the troops. The crowd at a Friday night football game cheered wildly when a plane flew over pulling the banner: THANK YOU CAMDENTON! GET LOST ACLU!

That was last fall. Now the lake town is really fuming.

Earlier this week, the Camdenton school board agreed to settle a federal lawsuit brought against the district, agreed to allow sites such as that of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and agreed to pay $125,000 for the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

Stacy Shore, a longtime Camdenton real estate agent and tea party member, said Thursday she thought the board should have fought on.

“The ACLU came in here and pushed us around and told us what to do and now they’re gone and we’re left to pick up the pieces,” Shore said. “This was never about gay-bashing. This was about parental rights.”

The case began more than a year ago when the ACLU learned that hundreds of school districts across the country used a web-filtering system called URL Blacklist, which was designed by a mystery man in England who went by “Dr. Guardian.”

When the ACLU asked those districts to make changes, all but one did.

“Camdenton made clear the only way to stop them was to sue them,” Joshua Block, an ACLU attorney, said from his office in New York.

School board president Nancy Masterson thinks the issue spun into inaccuracy.

“We did not give in to the ACLU,” she said. “They wanted us to remove our sexuality filter and we refused to do that. What happened was that some websites were inadvertently closed and now they’re open.

“We settled because the money we were spending would be more appropriately spent on our children.

“We’re happy it’s over.”

Camdenton tea party leader Cliff Luber doesn’t think it is over. He told fellow members of the Lake Area Conservative Club in an email that he hoped they were as outraged as he was, and that they needed to learn which board members voted to settle and “Vote them out!”

He went on to warn them that the ACLU wasn’t done — they’d next come after prayer at graduation and the Christmas manger scene on the town square.

“Folks, this is where the battle is, right here, right now, in our community,” Luber wrote.

All this because a 16-year-old girl didn’t think it right that the school’s web filter blocked gay-friendly sites, but allowed those that offered counseling on how gays and lesbians could convert to being straight.

Since enacted by Congress in 2001, the Children’s Internet Protection Act requires school districts to have filters in place to guard against access to computer content that is obscene, pornographic or otherwise harmful to minors.

URL Blacklist was one of several companies offering the service, and it was on the less-expensive side. It has no physical address, no known building and no identity for the man behind it other than “Dr. Guardian.”

According to the lawsuit filed against Camdenton, the software blocked websites supportive of gays and lesbians, such as Equality Forum, Day of Silence, Freedom to Marry, Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Testimony showed those were kept off computers because they were categorized as being “sexual.”

Sites that advocate against homosexuality and gay marriage, such as American Family Association, People Can Change and Family Research Council, were categorized as religious, and allowed.

The suit fired up the locals, who demanded not only that the filter remain, but also that parents be notified anytime a student asked that such a site be unblocked.

At a U.S. District Court hearing last fall in Jefferson City, Camdenton Superintendent Timothy Hadfield denied any discrimination because sites such as Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation could be accessed if a student asked that it be unblocked.

They could even ask anonymously, Hadfield stressed.

True enough, said a plaintiff witness, Barbara Stripling, director of school library services in New York City. But she countered that students couldn’t ask for sites they didn’t know existed.

Second, Stripling testified, having to ask creates a stigma for the students.

Thomas Mickes, a St. Louis attorney who represented the school district, argued to the judge that Camdenton was sued simply because it refused to be bullied.

“I am disappointed that the school district has been attacked because when the ACLU sends a nasty letter they don’t cave in and do what they want them to do,” Mickes said. “They stand up and say, ‘We’re going to do what’s right.’”

In February, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey issued a preliminary injunction that barred the district from using the filter system. She said school districts can prevent certain websites from making their way to students’ computers, but not by viewpoint. She ordered Camdenton to install a new system that did not discriminate against sites “expressing a positive viewpoint toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.”

The town prepared for war. But at Tuesday’s board meeting, the board voted 5-0 to settle.

In announcing this week’s settlement, the ACLU also said that URL Blacklist had changed its design to now allow access to thousands of websites that had been blocked under its old configuration.

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