Federal Court: Demanding Facebook Password of Student and Punishing Her for “Naughty” Messages Implicates First, Fourth Amendments

By on September 19, 2012

Last week, Techdirt highlighted an excellent, speech-friendly decision from the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog has also picked up on the decision by Chief Judge Michael J. Davis, which can be found here. The court’s opinion is worth a read, and it lays out a very troubling set of facts: Student posts online, gets punished by school, school demands access to student’s social media account.

The case involves a 12-year-old Minnesota student, "R.S.", in the Minnewaska Area School District. In 2011, R.S. posted on Facebook about how she hated a school hall monitor, "Kathy," because Kathy "was mean to me." Subsequently, one of her Facebook friends copied the message and it ended up in front of the school principal. When R.S. was given detention and forced to apologize for her speech, she took to Facebook again, posting: "I want to know who the f%$# [sic] told on me." R.S. was given an in-school suspension and prohibited from attending a school trip for this second posting.

R.S. also claimed that she was hauled out of class twice and interrogated about alleged "naughty conversations" online with a male student. After she admitted to the sexually-themed discussions, school officials demanded that she provide her Facebook account password and threatened her with detention if she did not comply. With R.S. present, the school officials and a uniformed police officer then viewed her Facebook page and commented on her postings, including a posting pertaining to an online "sex quiz" she took.

After this embarrassing and intrusive ordeal, R.S. sued the school district in federal court, alleging, among other claims, violations of federal constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments and violations of rights under the Minnesota state constitution. 

Without dwelling on the procedural specifics, let me highlight some of the court’s holdings: 

  • This set of facts would be enough to prove, at trial, a policy or custom of the school district condoning unconstitutional searches and punishment for off campus speech.
  • Off-campus statements can only be regulated if "they are true threats or are reasonably calculated to reach the school environment and are so egregious as to post a serious safety risk or other substantial disruption in that environment" [emphasis in original].
  • Clearly established law, including several high-profile Supreme Court cases, has put school officials on notice that they cannot regulate the type of harmless speech at issue in this case.
  • Students who make their online profiles private have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those profiles for Fourth Amendment purposes. Facebook messages are just like email.
  • Schools have no legitimate interest in searching students’ online postings or messages simply because the postings or messages are "naughty."
  • Students have a clearly established right to be free from unreasonable searches.
  • School superintendents can be liable for failure to train school employees to comply with the Constitution.
  • Just because someone is violating the terms of service of a website (in this case, R.S. was too young to use Facebook) doesn’t mean that person doesn’t have a privacy right in the use of that website.

There is a lot in this opinion, but suffice it to say that Chief Judge Michael J. Davis has read First and Fourth Amendment law in a very student-friendly way, and we at FIRE think that’s a great development for student rights. 

We will keep you apprised of developments in this case. Stay tuned!

Cases: Nationwide: Password Protection Acts