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Summary:

Kids have always said bad things about teachers and gotten into trouble with their classmates. But today, it’s much easier for schools to overhear them by accessing a student’s Facebook account. One judge has put the brakes on this.

Kid

How far can a school go in punishing students for what they do on Facebook? One Minnesota middle school crossed the line, leading a federal judge to say it violated one girl’s basic rights.

The case involves a 12-year-old girl who used Facebook to diss the hall monitor, writing “[I hate] a Kathy person at school because [Kathy] was mean to me.” She also used the social network to talk about “naughty things” with a boy. When one of her “friends” ratted on her, the girl wrote on her Facebook wall, “I want to know who the f%$# told on me.”

Three school officials, including a counselor and a taser-wearing cop, came down hard. They interrogated her in an office and badgered the sobbing girl until she handed over her passwords. They proceeded to go through her Facebook and email accounts to find the “naughty” discussion she had with the boy.

Now, the school is in hot water. U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ruled that the school appears to have violated the girl’s free speech and privacy rights. He wrote:

For more than forty years, the United States courts have recognized that students do not check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door  …  The movement of student speech to the internet poses some new challenges, but that transition has not abrogated the clearly established general principles which have governed schools for decade

Davis noted that there is a clear exception to the rule that schools can’t infringe on students’ free speech rights —  when there is a clear threat of violence with a connection to the school. This obviously wasn’t the case in Minnesota since the girl’s Facebook activity took place outside of school.

The decision, first reported by Seattle lawyer Venkat Balasubramani, comes at a time of a growing backlash against school and workplace attempts to pry into people’s social media lives.

Davis’ ruling also provides an interesting tour of other cases in which students push the social media envelope, sometimes in very unpleasant ways. In one example, a court upheld the speech rights of a student who made a MySpace parody of his principal:

the student featured a picture of the principal (taken from a school website) and stated that the principal was “too drunk to remember” his birthday and was also a “big steroid freak,” a “big whore,” and a “big fag.”

Students’ social media activity may be upsetting or disrespectful but it’s nothing new — Bart Simpson, the Beastie Boys and others have trash-talked teachers since the dawn of school. The platform is different but the behavior is not.

Judge Davis’ decision , which came in response to the school’s request to dismiss, is here:

Minnesota Student First Amendment
(Image by 3445128471 via Shutterstock)

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  1. Reblogged this on Red Paint Blog and commented:
    I don’t have a Facebook account, primarily because the idea of living my personal life online sounds like the worst idea since Jarts. However, its cases like this that had me thinking about going to law school to focus on Internet Law. I cannot see how in the world the school could think they had the right to demand access to this kid’s account.

    Side note: for those of you under 30- Jarts was a “toy” that consisted of six two-foot long darts with SHARP STEEL tips and two hula hoops. The idea was to play it kind of like horseshoes, but with LETHAL STEEL SPIKES.

    “Happy 8th Birthday, Bobby. Now take this lethal mini-spear and hurl it across the yard. Try not to puncture your other guests. Have fun!!!”

  2. Excellent post Jeff — I really appreciate your analysis and intend to reblog this on the Computer | Data Privacy | Social Media Law Blog. Nice work!

  3. I was under the distinct impression that to begin an account with facebook one had to swear that they were 18 yrs of age or older. Why are children on facebook.

    @Jay………one does not have to put ‘personal life’ info on facebook. You may or may not choose to ‘comment’ on someones remarks. (that is an option)

    1. Good point re age, Susan, The judge addresses this at page 41 of the judgment (see above). He says that violating a web site’s terms of service shouldn’t matter for the purpose of constitutional rights. On the same page, he cites a study saying there are 7.5 million other Facebook users under age 13 (which is now FB’s minimum age).

    2. http://www.facebook.com/legal/terms

      Section 4: Registration and Account Security
      Item 5: You will not use Facebook if you are under 13.

      It took me all of 30 seconds to find the authoritative answer. Why the victim had the account is irrelevant to the violation of her rights and the abuse to which she was subjected.

  4. One should always have 2 facebook accounts. One you use and a fake one. In either case these are private domains and should a boss be nosy enough to look up an employee, they should be penalized for firing someone for any content they find. Make the law clear – if you fire someone because of facebook you can be sued. Defamation of character is another thing entirely, in that case a boss can sue the employee – if he is stupid enough to not put it on his real account.

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