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U.S. Education Dept. Sued Over Blocking Access to Advocacy Group’s Website From Within Office Building

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee. AP Photo

 

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Alleged Wi-Fi block violates the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act, complaint argues.

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen on Tuesday filed suit against the Education Department, complaining that the agency had blocked access to the group’s website to users inside an agency building.

The complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia names the department and Secretary Betsy DeVos as defendants, arguing that the alleged Wi-Fi block violates the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The problem surfaced on Feb. 22, according to the complaint. Public Citizen staff member Patrick Llewellyn was at a meeting in the Education building at 550 12th St. SW in Washington and attempted to log onto the Internet using government WiFi, the complaint said.  He was “able to use ED’s Wi-Fi network to access numerous websites, including websites of various advocacy groups and trade associations,” a Public Citizen attorney stated in the document. But when Llewellyn attempted to access Public Citizen’s website, he received a message on his device indicating that access to that site is “in violation of your Internet usage policy. Please contact your network administrator for assistance.”

Public Citizen linked the episode to numerous documents critical of the Education Department policy under DeVos, such as a December 2018 report titled, “Rewriting the Teach Grant Rules: Lessons from a History of Mismanagement,” which provided a critical analysis of grant-to-loan conversions under Education’s TEACH Grant program. “The report found that decisions and errors made by ED in its administration of the program contributed to the staggering number of teachers whose educational grants have been erroneously converted to student debt,” the complaint noted.

Washington attorney and Public Citizen member David Halperin, whose name is on the complaint, stated that in the course of his regular visits to the Education Department’s office to attend rule-making sessions and hearings, he has routinely accessed multiple outside websites from his computer. But “for approximately the past year, however, Mr. Halperin has been blocked from accessing Public Citizen’s website on ED’s guest Wi-Fi networks.”

The complaint argued that “The department and DeVos have no legitimate justification for blocking access to Public Citizen’s website and are imposing a viewpoint-based and/or content-based restriction on Public Citizen’s protected speech, in violation of the First Amendment.” The action is said to violate the APA because “it is not supported by reasoned decision making, arbitrarily treats similarly situated persons differently, and fails to consider or preserve the important First Amendment principles at stake.”

The suit seeks a court order declaring the department’s and DeVos’s action “unlawful and enjoining them from blocking access to Public Citizen’s website on its Wi-Fi and internal networks.” It also seeks reimbursement for attorney’s fees.

Ask for comment by Government Executive, a department spokesman said, “The department does not comment on pending litigation.”

Public Citizen attorney Nandan Joshi on Thursday said he has received no response from the department and is not able to verify whether access to the group’s website is now allowed inside the department

Charles S. Clark is a Senior Correspondent at Government Executive. 

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