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Public Citizen v. DeVos

The Department of Education operates Wi-Fi networks that it makes available to visitors attending meetings at its headquarters and other offices.  These Wi-Fi networks enable users who log on through their smartphones or other electronic devices to access the Internet.  The Department also operates an internal network that allows ED personnel to access the Internet through their work computers or other work devices.

Public Citizen discovered that the Department had been blocking users of its Wi-Fi and internal networks from accessing Public Citizen’s website, www.citizen.org.  Users who attempted to access Public Citizen’s website received an error message stating that Public Citizen’s web address was “in violation of your Internet usage policy” and that the website fell within “Category: Advocacy Organization.”

In April 2019, Public Citizen and David Halperin, a regular visitor to the Department who has tried to access the website during meetings there, sued Secretary DeVos and the Department, alleging that blocking access to our website violates the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act. The complaint sought an order declaring the Department’s action unlawful and unconstitutional and an injunction prohibiting the Department from blocking Public Citizen’s website on the agency’s Wi-Fi and internal networks. Shortly after we sued, we filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. The Department responded by unblocking the website, and we withdrew that motion.

Information obtained through the litigation revealed that the agency’s web filtering service provider Fortinet categorized the websites of “advocacy organizations” as a subset of the category “adult/mature,” along with websites devoted to pornography and gambling. By asking the service to block “adult/mature” content, the Department had blocked access to the websites of advocacy organizations. In response to our request, the Department agreed to adjust its web filter to unblock websites categorized as “advocacy organizations.” We then voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit.