Another School Violated a Student’s First Amendment Rights by Disciplining Her For Facebook Posts — R.S. v. Minnewaska Area School Dist. No. 2149
[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]
R.S. ex rel. S.S. v. Minnewaska Area School Dist. No. 2149, 2012 WL 3870868 (D.Minn. September 6, 2012)
R.S. was a twelve year old student at a Minnewaska Area middle school. She posted a message to her Facebook page about an adult hall monitor at her school:
[I hate] a Kathy person at school because [Kathy] was mean to me.
The post was only accessible to her friends. One of her friends brought the post to the attention of the administration. The principal called R.S. into his office and told R.S. “that he considered the message about Kathy to be impermissible bullying.” (???) As a result of the message, R.S. was required to apologize, given detention, and received a disciplinary notation in her records. R.S. was disciplined a second time when she expressed her chagrin that someone had told on her (“I want to know who the f%$# told on me.”) [“f%$#” in original] This time she was disciplined for “insubordination” and “dangerous, harmful, and nuisance substances and articles.” (???)
Separately, school officials received a complaint from a parent that R.S. was allegedly communicating with another student about “sexual topics on the internet.” A school official told R.S.’s mother that, apparently, a boy had initiated an online conversation about sex with R.S. This time, R.S. was pulled out of class and grilled about the conversation. Dissatisfied with the responses R.S. provided, officials asked R.S. for her Facebook password. Although she initially said she forgot it, under the glare of the lights, she provided the password. School officials proceeded to search her Facebook account, including private messages. For good measure, they also searched her private email account.
R.S. was understandably upset by the search and the instances of discipline. She sued, alleging violations of her constitutional rights.
First Amendment claims: The court has no trouble concluding that assuming the facts as alleged as true, school officials violated R.S.’s First Amendment rights. The court says that posts on social networks are protected unless they are “true threats” or are reasonably calculated to reach the school environment and pose a safety risk or a risk of substantial disruption of the school environment. R.S.’s posts were not true threats. Even assuming the statements were reasonably calculated to reach the school audience, there was no possibility of disruption. The court distinguished D.J.M. v. Hannibal Public School District #60, a case where the Eighth Circuit said that a student could be properly disciplined for threatening instant messages (quick linked here) on the basis that that case involved a threat and actually disrupted the school environment. The court also cites to Layshcok, where the Third Circuit said that setting up a mocking profile of a high school principal was not sufficient to warrant discipline. (See also J.S. ex rel. Snyder v. Blue Mountain Sch. Dist.)
Fourth Amendment claims: The court also says that the school officials violated R.S.’s Fourth Amendment rights to the extent they rummaged around in her Facebook page and her private email account. Private emails were like letters of other private conversations, and subject to Fourth Amendment protections. Private Facebook messages are no different. There was no evidence that the officials tailored their search to minimize the intrusion. Even if they had, they had no underlying basis to search in the first place.
Other claims: The court does dismiss the claims for intentional inflection of emotional distress. However, it allows the claims for invasion of privacy. In passing, it also rejects the school’s argument that R.S.’s violation of Facebook terms (by misrepresenting her age when she signed up) does not mean that she is entitled to fewer privacy protections.
Not much more to say about this one. Assuming the facts are as they alleged (something the court takes pains to say may not be the case), this looks like a major over-reaction from the school. Disciplining R.S. for her off-campus and relatively innocuous post was bad enough. Searching her Facebook account and email was a gaffe for which the school district will likely end up writing a check.
[Eric's comment: perhaps naively, I keep hoping that, over time, school administrators will stop freaking out about students' social media activities. This is a contrary datapoint; based on the allegations, this looks like a freakout. In particular, it's a good example of how administrators might use the "bullying" label as a pretextual justification for punishment. The term "bullying" has way too much semantic ambiguity, but it should never stretch as far as calling another person "mean."]