12-year-old sues school over Facebook privacy invasion
MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota middle school student, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, is suing her school district over a search of her Facebook and e-mail accounts by school employees.
The 12-year-old sixth grade student, identified in court documents only as R.S., was on two occasions punished for statements she made on her Facebook account, and was also pressured to divulge her password to school officials, the complaint states.
“R.S. was intimidated, frightened, humiliated and sobbing while she was detained in the small school room” as she watched a counselor, a deputy, and another school employee pore over her private communications.
The lawsuit claims that her First Amendment rights were violated by employees at Minnewaska Area Middle School, in west-central Minnesota, as well as her Fourth Amendment rights regarding unreasonable search and seizure.
The Minnewaska School District denies any wrongdoing.
“The district did not violate R.S.’s civil rights, and disputes the one-sided version of events set forth in the complaint written by the ACLU,” according to a district statement.
According to the complaint, R.S. felt that one of the school’s adult hall monitors was picking on her, so she wrote on her Facebook “wall” that she hated that person because she was mean.
The message was not posted from school property or using any school equipment or connections, the lawsuit states.
Somehow, the school principal got a hold of a screenshot of the message, and punished R.S. with detention and made her apologize to the hall monitor, the complaint says.
She was in trouble again shortly thereafter for another Facebook post, which asked who turned her in, using an expletive for effect, the lawsuit says. She was given in school suspension and missed a class ski trip.
In the third incident, according to the complaint, R.S. was called in by school officials after the guardian of another student complained that R.S. had had a conversation about sex on Facebook.
The girl was called to a meeting with a deputy sheriff, school counselor and an unidentified school employee, the court documents states.
There, she was “intimidated” into giving up her login and passwords to her Facebook and e-mail accounts, the lawsuit says.
“R.S. was extremely nervous and being called out of class and being interrogated,” the lawsuit says.
The officials did not have permission from R.S.’s mother to view her private communications, and they gave the girl a hard time about some of the material they discovered, the lawsuit states.
“Students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the school house gate,” Charles Samuelson, executive director for the ACLU in Minnesota, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court ruled on that in the 1970s, yet schools like Minnewaska seem to have no regard for the standard.”
The school district maintains that such searches did not cross any boundaries.
“The district is confident that once all facts come to light, the district’s conduct will be found to be reasonable and appropriate,” the district said.