Conservative law firm files suit against educational database that allegedly provided access to porn in Cherry Creek schools

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AURORA | An Omaha-based law firm that provides free counsel to mostly pro-life clients filed a lawsuit in Arapahoe District Court Wednesday against EBSCO, a scholastic network that an Aurora couple alleged imbedded pornography into educational databases for children in Cherry Creek schools.

The suit comes, in part, at the behest of Aurora couple Drew and Robin Paterson, who in late 2016 determined the EBSCO databases — which their child was using in school at the time — easily returned pornographic links for seemingly innocuous search terms.

The controversy surrounding EBSCO became inextricably tied to the Cherry Creek School District, where the Paterson’s child was attending school, after the couple regularly started protesting the platform at school board meetings. 

Following nearly two years of negotiations, CCSD elected to drop its contract with EBSCO last month.

We were happy Cherry Creek finally did the right thing,” Robin Paterson said in a statement. “But EBSCO still is supplying its pornographic databases to school children in other school districts across Colorado.  With this lawsuit being filed today, the other shoe has dropped.  Now it’s time for EBSCO and the Colorado Library Consortium to do the right thing.”

The suit claims that by searching terms such as “romance”, pornographic titles and links generated through the EBSCO database can appear. The claim alleges the title “Bondage bites: 69 super-short stories of love, lust and BDSM,” was readily available after only a few clicks.

“This is not the internet, as some school officials have falsely stated,” Matt Heffron, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society, the conservative law firm with offices in Chicago and Omaha that filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “(Educational databases) should not be infested with adult sexual fantasies.”

Billed as a “public interest” and not-for-profit law firm, the Thomas More Society was founded in the late 1990s to provide legal defense to pro-life activists who regularly demonstrated outside of abortion clinics, according to the group’s website.

The educational firm EBSCO has vehemently denied its alleged role in putting questionable content into the hands of children. 

Jessica Holmes, a spokeswoman for the company, told the Sentinel last month that the company, “does not license any pornographic titles, yet content from our databases is erroneously being labelled pornographic. The content being questioned is from mainstream magazines.”

In an emailed statement sent Thursday, EBSCO executive Kathleen McEvoy rebuked the nature of the recent lawsuit.

“To be clear, EBSCO does not include pornographic titles in its databases, embed pornographic content in its databases, or receive revenue for advertising from any organization,” said McEvoy, vice president of communications for EBSCO. “With teams of educators, librarians and subject matter experts (many of whom are also parents of children), we bring together well-known, educational publications into curated collections to serve specific research needs. In addition to the measures we take to ensure only appropriate content is included, we have tools that allow customers to remove any publications from the databases if they so choose.

We are appalled by the tenor of allegations related to our intent and the inaccuracies of statements clearly made in absence of factual information.”

A quasi-internet database, EBSCO is used by an estimated 55,000 schools across the country, according to the Cherry Creek School District.

The lawsuit claims that the company is infringing on the rights of parents and children to not be subjected to sexually explicit material.

The suit asks the court to halt EBSCO from providing sexually explicit content to children; to stop “conspiring to violate federal and state laws;” compensate the plaintiff’s legal fees; and provide $500 in damages per violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, which serves to protect the state’s residents from fraud.

Deemed “Pornography is Not Education,” the collective plaintiffs in the case include roughly 60 “parents and grandparents of elementary, junior-high and high-school students in the Colorado public school systems who have been impacted by research databases provided by EBSCO,” according to the complaint.

The case was locally filed by Theresa Sidebotham, an attorney with the Monument-based firm Telios Law, which specializes in representing churches and ministries, according to the firm’s website. Sidebotham said her firm has worked with the Thomas More Society on other cases in the past.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday also reels in the Colorado Library Consortium, a nonprofit organization, for allegedly helping EBSCO peddle pornography to school-age children.

“That’s a group of libraries and they buy material from EBSCO and some of the material they buy equally has this problem in that it includes the pornographic material,” Sidebotham said. “So the one is being sued because it produces databases and doesn’t tell the truth about what’s in it, and the library is being sued because it purchases it and actually provides it to the children.” 

Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium, declined to specifically comment on the case, saying, “now that this lawsuit is in front of a judge, it is a matter of public record in the courts and will be handled accordingly there.”

Sentinel Staff Writer Grant Stringer contributed to this story.