School district demands Facebook password, 12-year-old girl sues

School district demands Facebook password, 12-year-old girl sues

Summary: A 12-year-old girl is suing a school district for violating her First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights related to her use of Facebook. Facebook's minimum age requirement is 13-years-old.

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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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Topic: Social Enterprise

Emil Protalinski

About Emil Protalinski

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years,
he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars
Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

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54 comments
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  • Too much

    Schools do not exist outside the boundaries of law.
    Activities like this make me wonder what they are evolving into.
    rhonin
    • I dont know about the US

      but in the UK schools have a duty of care and are responsible for children in their schools. I wonder what the mother would have said if the boy who she was discussing sex with had engaged with sex with her and it then came out that the school had been alerted to this. Equally what if she had been punished without veryfying the claims - another law suit. My advice to parents is if you dont want a delinguent child then support your schools in applying greater discipline - this girl should have been grounded for a month and had her computer taken away until she learned to behave like an adult deserving the free speech protections
      cymru999
      • I agree with you. People want it both ways

        they do not want [i]their[/i] privacy invaded, yet should someone post on facebook they wish harm to another person, then those same people that do not want their privacy invaded sue as the school did not invade the privacy of that person making the threats.
        Tim Cook
      • I don't know about the UK...

        ...but in the United States if you're not breaking the law, then you should be left the eff alone. We call this the Fourth Amendment. Simply stated, it says mind your own damn business.

        If you want to ground someone, how about the school administrator that bullied a 12 year old girl with the cooperation of the local police. It would make me want to sell my house and move.

        We also believe that 'freedom' is something everyone deserves, not just the people YOU decide have earned it. Though there are some that think this should change (looking at you, Christians), there are enough sane people here to keep them from succeeding.

        Except in parts of Minnesota, it seems.
        pishaw
        • the coment probally did not even constitute bullying

          since when does saying someone was mean to you constitute bullying? Have we as a nation become so sensitive that we cannot handle what amounts to "I do not like ________ or the way she treats me"
          anonymous
    • Two different issues here

      The other one being the girl was under the legal age Facebook specified for use.

      Where are the parents? Maybe that's why the school stepped in?

      The first amendment deals with addressing grievances with government. That's why so many excuses can be made (re: private companies' terms of service policies, for ironic example...)

      And children are formative creatures. Does she really have such strong rights when she's just a child that really does not know better than most adults? When she reaches 18 will she have full rights. Not before. I don't recall anywhere saying how children have such rights, and if they did do you not think that a child would test the system solely for selfish gain? Most kids, especially teens, tend to rebel and do things for selfish gain... that's why "18" (or "21", depending) is a set age for adulthood...
      HypnoToad72
      • The school SHOULD HAVE

        involved the parents of the girl - from what I read it does not seem like her parents were involved at all. In this respect they did in fact violate the girl's rights - or the parent's rights.
        athynz
      • *blinks*

        The constitution also protects children from government intrusion, including the first and fourth amendment. The first amendment covers freedom of expression (all of the statements made by the child were not made on school property, using school equipment, or on school time) and she was also subjected to an unreasonable search & seizure (violation of her fourth amendment rights) with a deputy present, while her parents were not even notified!

        Do you sincerely think that the constitution just magically becomes valid once a citizen becomes the age of majority? o.O

        With that said, Facebook is a private entity. It's not illegal for a 12 year old to have an account with them, it's just simply against the terms of service of a private company.
        carym
      • @carym

        @carym: "It's not illegal for a 12 year old to have an account with them, it's just simply against the terms of service of a private company. "

        Um, COPPA?
        PB_z
      • @PB_z

        The law applies to Facebook, not the child. The intention of the law isn't designed to punish the minors, nor does it make the child a criminal.
        carym
    • a solution?

      What would solve the problem is for the parent to demand that the account be closed. Period. It's very likely that the child is involved in the games online, which is what my grandsons like about it. Incidentally, not all accounts for under-aged kids actually belong to the under-aged kid. I know of people who made accounts for their kids to enable them to send gifts and play twice the games. The kid can play some of the the games, but doesn't actually administer the account.
      library assistant
      • their are better game sites tham facebook

        My daughter is 5 and I let her watch me play facebook apps, but if they want to play games get them a neopets account
        anonymous
  • Unbelievable!!

    A so called responsible mother sues a school for investigating the possibility that her 12 year old daughter was (a) a cyber bully, (b) was engaging in sexual correspondence with a boy and (c) was using facebook illegally. One would think that in a sane world she would not only support what the school had done but also ensure that all her daughters future online activities were recorded and monitored until she proved that she had earned being trusted with privacy.

    The rights of free speech should not be twisted to apply to delinquent underage children who clearly lack parental control.
    cymru999
    • Exactly!!!!

      I was about to write something similar, but you said best.

      It is amazing how IRRESPONSIBLE many parents are. To them, their spoiled brats are saints and instead of addressing the actual problem they concentrate on stupid things and want to punish the people who discovered that their kid is not the nice kid they they want people to believe that they are. In other words, the parents are doing nothing but creating the next generation of criminals.
      wackoae
      • exactly?

        Where exactly did it say that the mother was even asked BEFORE they made the girl give up her account information? Don't you think it might be POSSIBLE that the parent was stripped of her right to parent by the school forcing the child to give up her password instead of asking the parent to deal with the situation?
        library assistant
      • nope

        This was never brought to the parents attention. Schools have been taking unilateral action, cutting parents out of the loop, disciplining them for thing that happen off campus with out the parents knowledge or consent. And some times for stupid stuff like playing with a toy gun in their own front yard!
        anonymous
    • Schools have become leftist authoritarian regimes

      The mother sued the school because they acted without her knowledge and consent. It's one thing for a school official to call the parent in and present their situation, it's another thing altogether for the school to act as judge and jury based on their own "moral standards". Absent an imminent threat to school order and safety, they should have involved the parent and placed the matter in the parent's hands.

      Ever since schools have been given their own police forces and powers to make up rules on their own, the schools have increasingly operated as little authoritarian regimes that reach far outside their own grounds. Schools have been shown to make arbitrary and capricious punishments against activities far outside their "jurisdictions", and carry out dubious actions like spying on students at home and in public places like malls, and yes, the web. The ACLU gets a lot of flack for being a liberal organization, but their decision to stand up for parents' rights and against the leftist educational system are commendable.
      terry flores
      • Leftist?

        Yeah, right. Authoritarian, sure. Leftist? Hardly.

        I always wondered why people detest an organization who will fight for everyone's first amendment rights or why it's believed they are liberal. They are nonpartisan & have a history of defending a diverse group of individuals, including the Westboro Church.
        carym
      • I understand. The misdeeds of a few indicate that everyone is corrupt.

        So I assume that you agree with the RIAA, as since a small portion of the populace illegally distribute pirated materials, this indicates that [i]everyone[/i] pirates music.

        That is what you are implying, correct? That since some school districts have overstepped their bounds, that is a clear indication athat [b]all[/b] school districts do so dailey.
        Tim Cook
      • *facepalm*

        I'm a "leftist" and if you bother to read my other responses, you might suddenly realize how DIM it is to place everybody in the same neatly-labeled basket.


        I'll side with carym on this issue.


        And, as I recall, the ACLU stood up to defend people like Rush Limbaugh, and most of us know how Rush loves to bash the ACLU at every turn... The ACLU has the guts to remain nonpartisan, and even support people that wouldn't otherwise mind if the ACLU were shut down.

        Kudos to the ACLU for being mature, but I digress... in this instance, the ACLU is wrong. Children are formative creatures and I don't think the first amendment applies to them the same way it does for adults. Especially if the child wantonly breaks the terms of service that facebook put out, about age. She's delinquent. And that is a far more pertinent issue than "ACLU this" or "liberal that".
        HypnoToad72