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 (s fb) 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: