Facebook is public, but that doesn't mean school officials can punish you for what you say on Facebook from the privacy of your own home. It certainly doesn't mean that the school can demand access to your Facebook password. A Minnesota school just learned that lesson, and now it has to pay a teenager $70,000 for the lesson...
On Above the Law, we've covered the murky legal waters when a private employer demands access to your Facebook account as a condition of employment. They shouldn't, but the business lobby is strong and lawmakers need campaign donations.
But when a public school demands access to the Facebook account of its students, without parental consent no less, the First Amendment concerns are a little more obvious.
Riley Stratton was a 13-year-old sixth grader when she went home and posted on Facebook that she "hated" one of the hall monitors at Minnewaska Schools because she was "mean." School officials suspended her for that status update.
Later, a parent apparently complained that Stratton's Facebook chats with her son were "sexual" in nature. The school called Stratton in, and with a deputy sheriff looking on, they demanded her Facebook password and went through her account.
When Stratton's mother learned of the "interrogation," she sued. Minnewaska Schools just reached a settlement with the Strattons, and the school agreed to pay $70,000 and re-write its social media policy. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a nice quote from the Strattons' ACLU lawyer:
"A lot of schools, like the folks at Minnewaska, think that just because it's easier to know what kids are saying off campus through social media somehow means the rules have changed, and you can punish them for what they say off campus," said attorney Wallace Hilke, who helped lead Riley's case from the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Facebook doesn't give schools a license to control off-campus speech. That shouldn't be a hard concept for school officials to understand.
Unfortunately, the Minnewaska people are eager to play into the fears of parents:
Minnewaska Superintendent Greg Schmidt, whose district admitted no liability in the settlement, says the case teeters on a fine line over when schools can play a parenting role to combat things such as cyberbullying.
"Some people think schools go too far and I get that," Schmidt said. "But we want to make kids aware that their actions outside school can be detrimental."
Oh noes! Not cyberbullying. Please, trample on all the rights you need to in order to stop two 13-year-olds from chatting in a "sexual nature."
In any event, the "line" where a school goes "too far" playing an off-campus parenting role is exactly where the school doesn't consult the parents. That should be pretty freaking obvious.