Last week, a student at Greenway High School in Coleraine reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Jana Kooren, asking her to send a speaker to headline a presentation for students of this small northern Minnesota school.
Kooren wrote back that the ACLU unfortunately could not – the organization didn’t have the staff and resources to travel that far.
That response kept bouncing back. Kooren received an alert from the school stating, “Your email was rejected because it may have contained content that violates school policies. A record has been kept and logged.”
She modified the email several times, each time taking out different words here and there.
Finally, after she’d removed “gay and lesbian,” the email sailed through to the student’s inbox.
ACLU legal director Teresa Nelson penned a formal letter to Greenway High School complaining that administrators were violating students’ First Amendment rights by filtering out “gay and lesbian” from online communications, demanding that they lift the ban immediately.
"In addition to violating students’ First Amendment rights, filtering “gay and lesbian” from student electronic communications also violates the Equal Access Act because it denies students who are seeking to form gay-straight alliances (“GSAs”), equal access to school resources that are generally available to other non-curricular clubs," Nelson wrote.
She gave the school until May 13 to remove the software filter, warning that the ACLU would consider “further actions.”
That's when Greenway Principal Jeff Britten first learned there might be a problem with his school’s email security filter. He dug into the software and discovered that someone had indeed manually added “gay” to a list of prohibited words. He says he has no idea who might have done that, when, or why, except that preteen kids sometimes use the word “gay” as an insult synonymous with “stupid,” and it might have been an issue at one point.
The word “lesbian” has never been banned from email. Neither “gay” nor “lesbian” were ever filtered out from web access.
“We weren’t aware that it was being filtered by the email system,” Britten says. “But when it was determined by the ACLU, we removed it immediately. The situation certainly doesn’t reflect the actions of the district, especially over the last few years, to support students.”
All students are welcome at Greenway, Britten says. The school has an LGBT group that is advised by a staff member, and electronic monitors advertise information on how to join that group, greeting students as soon as they walk in the front door.
Britten and Greenway Superintendent Matt Grose called the ACLU on Tuesday morning to explain that they’d fixed the issue as soon as they could, and that the school stands by its gay students. The school will be issuing a formal response later today.
The principal says he just hopes that the ACLU is willing to hear Greenway out, and perhaps send a speaker even if it might be costly.
“We’re in rural Minnesota, and this happens a lot with organizations out of the Twin Cities to be honest with you,” Britten says of being rejected by nonprofits. “Our students need support as much as anyone else."