A mother and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota sued Minnewaska Area Schools and Pope County officials Tuesday on behalf of a 12-year-old girl. The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court claims the school district violated the middle school girl's First Amendment (freedom of speech) and Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) rights in two separate Facebook incidents where she was disciplined by administrators.
The ACLU explains the school disciplined the girl, known only as R.S., after she posted on Facebook that she "hated" a hall monitor who was "mean" to her. School principal Pat Falk said the comment constituted bullying; R.S. was given detention and told to apologize. The sixth-grade student was at home when she posted the comment: no school computer or school connections were used, the ACLU points out. Afterwards, she posted another comment, cursing that someone had shown her first one to school officials. The school district responded by giving her an in-school suspension and prohibiting her from attending a class ski trip. The ACLU argues the discipline violated the girl's free speech rights.
In a second incident, the ACLU says school administrators forced R.S. to hand over her Facebook login credentials (e-mail address and password) and e-mail accounts after a boy's mother complained that her son and the girl were talking about sex. The ACLU notes that while an unidentified school employee, a school counselor, and a local deputy sheriff were present, a warrant was not. Furthermore, the girl's mother allegedly did not consent the search of her daughter's Facebook chat logs. The group claims this violated the girl's right to privacy and right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Mind you, schools aren't the only ones to do this (Employer demands Facebook login credentials during interview).
In a curious twist, as pointed out by CNET, 12-year-olds aren't allowed on Facebook in the first place. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mandates that websites that collect information about users aren't allowed to sign on anyone under the age of 13. As a result, Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities require users of the social network to be at least 13 years old (and even older, in some jurisdictions).
Millions of preteens use the service anyway: some get permission from their parents to create an account while others lie about their age to get past sign-up restrictions. Last year it was estimated that 7.5 million Facebook users are below the minimum age. To make matters even more worrying, more than 5 million were 10-years-old or younger. For its part, Facebook says it's a very tough problem to solve.
"Students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the school house gate," an ACLU spokesperson 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 argues that their searches did not cross any boundaries. "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," a district spokesperson said in a statement. "The district is confident that once all facts come to light, the district's conduct will be found to be reasonable and appropriate."
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