Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Student's suit for forced Facebook disclosure survives motion to dismiss; court finds reasonable expectation of privacy in Facebook messages

In R.S. v. Minnewaska Area Sch. Dist. No. 2149, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126257 (D. Minn., Sept. 6, 2012), a federal district court refused to dismiss the case of a 12-year-old against a Minnesota school district for allegedly punishing her for statements made on her Facebook wall and forcing her to disclose her Facebook password to search through her profile.  The case involves multiple causes of action, most of which survived the motion to dismiss, including the First and Fourth Amendment claims.

A summation of the facts can be found here: Minnesota girl alleges school privacy invasion, and here:
12-year-old sues school district over Facebook profile search and with a hat tip to the Student Press Law Center, the original complaint can be found here and its article here.

While the court only has one side of the story, currently, the facts are pretty favorable for the plaintiff as described. In quick summary, it does not appear that her comments meet the requirements of Tinker to regulate student speech, nor did the school have a compelling reason to search her Facebook account.

Addressing the Fourth Amendment claim, the court first noted the distinction between Facebook wall posts (which would receive less protection depending on the settings) and messages, and ultimately held that with respect to the student's messages and profile information:

Based on Plaintiffs' complaint, at least some of the information and messages accessed by the school officials were in R.S.'s exclusive possession, protected by her Facebook password. R.S. controlled those items until she involuntarily relinquished her password. As with a private letter, the content of R.S.'s electronic correspondence was available only to her and her correspondent. The Court concludes, based on established Fourth Amendment precedent, that R.S. had a reasonable expectation of privacy to her private Facebook information and messages.
The court went on to explicitly equate Facebook messages with email, stating that "[t]he Court agrees that one cannot distinguish a password-protected private Facebook message from other forms of private electronic correspondence."

Finally, the court detailed the contours of school searches - that reasonableness in that context is determined under a lower standard due to the school environment - balancing the students reasonable expectation of privacy against the "substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds." T.L.O. The court found nothing on the school's side of the scale to justify the search. The courts stated:
Based on the facts alleged in the complaint, the school officials had reason to believe that R.S. may have had a sex-related discussion with a classmate. Both R.S. and her classmate had already admitted as much to the school officials prior to the search. Plaintiffs contend that such an out-of-school discussion, even a "naughty" one, broke no law or school policies. 
At this stage, based on the facts alleged in Plaintiffs' complaint, the Court cannot disagree. It is difficult for the Court to discern what, if any, legitimate interest the school officials had for perusing R.S.'s private communications. . . . the school officials had no reason to believe that the search would return evidence of illegal behavior or violations of school policy. At this stage, there is no discernible school interest against which to balance R.S.'s reasonable expectation of privacy. 
I have to say, I am very interested to see the outcome of this case. I think the Fourth Amendment details are fascinating and I have paid close attention to First Amendment cases dealing with out-of-school speech so I'm hooked there, too.

If you are looking to brush up on recent school speech cases dealing with electronic speech and school intervention, look no further than the decisions of Layshock and J.S., recent cases from the Third Circuit which are laid out nicely in this student piece from the B.C. Law Review site by Paul Easton: SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE: LAYSHOCK AND J.S. CHART A SEPARATE PATH ON STUDENT SPEECH RIGHTS.


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