Satanic Temple Considers Legal Action Against School Censorship

So you want to talk about religious freedom... Image credit: Thomas Holt/Shutterstock

The Satanic Temple (TST) has another legal challenge on the horizon, this time concerning which websites students can access from public schools. In February, Malcolm Jarry of TST’s executive ministry received two emails from students complaining that TST’s website is blocked on school computers, though they were able to access the websites for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Jarry reached out both to the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the ACLU and letters were sent to the school districts informing them that this was a form of religious discrimination.

The school districts, Southwest Dubois County Schools in Indiana and Federal Hocking Local Schools in Ohio, explained that they had never blocked TST’s website and that the task of determining which web content students can access is outsourced to a company called Lightspeed Systems, headquartered in Austin, Texas. Someone at Lightspeed Systems had manually tagged TST’s website as “mature,” meaning students could not access it from schools. “There is no mature content on our website,” said Jarry, “not even an R-rated word.” RD asked whether there might be an image of a Francisco Goya painting featuring naked witches. “No,” he answered, “Not even that.”

The two school districts that received letters were able to unblock TST’s site, but this didn’t solve the problem as far as Jarry was concerned. Lightspeed Systems is active in 35 countries and contracts with 6,500 school districts in the United States alone. The company estimates that 15 million students are affected by their software. TST sent two letters to Lightspeed Systems, both of which went unanswered.

This is not the first time private companies contracted to filter web content have censored material about minority religions. In 2012 the ACLU sued a public library in Missouri because their computers blocked websites with information about Wicca or Native American religion. The library contracted with a company called Netsweeper, Inc., which categorized these religions as “occult” and offered clients the opportunity to block occult material. This kind of censorship can be an especially insidious form of religious discrimination because the public is often unaware that these companies exist or which sites they’ve elected to block.

Jarry would like Lightspeed Systems to unblock TST’s site for all of its clients and issue an apology. But putting pressure on these companies is difficult because TST isn’t a client of Lightspeed Systems. They would have to sue the schools for religious discrimination, who in turn would have to sue Lightspeed Systems for damages. But without a list of the 6,500 American school districts that use Lightspeed Systems, it’s difficult to begin this process.

Last week, TST described its conflict with Lightspeed Systems in its newsletter which reaches many high schoolers. As more and more students have come forward complaining that their school uses Lightspeed Systems to block TST’s website, TST’s legal team now regards these students as potential plaintiffs.

Public education has long been an important issue for Malcolm Jarry. In fact, TST’s first political action was a protest intended to call attention to a bill signed by Florida governor Rick Scott intended to promote Christian prayer in public schools. When RD asked Jarry what he thought about filtering web content in public schools he explained that he couldn’t answer the question because, for him, public education as we know it suffers from fundamental systemic problems. As he told RD, “Education should be founded on the principals of a self-directed approach where learners pursue the things they’re interested in and are guided by mentors. . . Everything that we know about learning is violated in the compulsory school environment.”