College’s Facebook Check May Leave It Liable

     (CN) – A Pennsylvania university must face claims that it violated a student’s privacy by accessing his Facebook account after he sent an email saying he was “done with humanity” and his faith “is the only thing keeping [him] from doing a significant amount of damage,” a federal judge ruled.
     While enrolled in the biology pre-med program at Widener University in Chester, Pa., Miguel Rodriguez, an honorably discharged Navy veteran, worked as an adviser and operations manager for the private, coed university.
     In an email sent on March 14, 2011 from Rodriguez’s university email to about 48 addresses, including that of his adviser, professor David Coughlin, Rodriguez stated that he was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward in North Carolina until March 11, 2011, “when they finally changed me to voluntary because I hadn’t rearranged the faces of everyone there (I guess).” (Parentheses in original.)
     The email continues: “I am moving and operating in a cold-fury. I am just trying to maintain my composure until the end of the school year so that I can finish the work that is important to me. I am, however, done with humanity and the pursuit of modern medicine. I have been harassed about there being a God, and I can’t make anyone agree with me, but I promise you that my belief is the only thing keeping me from doing a significant amount of damage to a small town in N.C.; property, police, and public citizens, all of which treated me lower than dirt.”
     University officials say that on Rodriguez’s Facebook page, where he calls himself “Broseidon Steele,” his favorite quotations include: “Time doesn’t stop moving and neither do I. I’d be a fool to settle down when any moment I could die. … I am Superman; and there’s no such thing as kryptonite. … Finally, after years of patiently waiting, I will show you how to weapon eyes.” He also posted: “This is a warning. A fair warning. A stern warning. A plea,” and “currently painting one of my pistols” in another section.
     On March 16, Rodriguez was interrogated — allegedly without being read his Miranda rights — by police officer Matthew Donohue, director of campus safety Patrick Sullivan, and dean of students Denise Gifford.
     Donohue found a knife and less than 30 grams of marijuana in Rodriguez’s backpack. Rodriguez was committed to Crozer Chester Medical Center until March 24, allegedly forcing him to miss an awards ceremony, classes and an admissions interview at a medical school.
     In a federal lawsuit filed March 13, Rodriguez claimed that he was suspended and fired after the meeting, and that in order to be readmitted, he had to be assessed by the university’s Office of Disabilities Services.
     He said the university violated his due process, equal protection and privacy rights, along with federal and state privacy laws.
     The university defendants moved to dismiss, and U.S. District Judge John Padova partially denied the motion last week.
     “While the Widener defendants argue that Rodriguez’s Facebook postings are covered by § 2511(g) [of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act] for purposes of the two claims — because they ‘were accessible to the general public and/or forwarded to certain Widener defendants by concerned students who had equal and permitted access to plaintiff’s Facebook postings’ — there is no factual basis in the complaint for this assertion,” Padova wrote. “Further, they cite no legal basis from which we can conclude as a matter of law that Rodriguez’s Facebook images are generally available to the public.”
     But the court dismissed Rodriguez’s state-law claim against his adviser, David Coughlin.
     “The facts that the two had a dispute over religion, and that Rodriguez told Coughlin as an addressee of the email that he would do ‘a significant amount of damage’ to public citizens, leads us to conclude as a matter of law that Coughlin’s alleged statement that Rodriguez had made a death threat was not recklessly false,” Padova wrote. “Accordingly, it cannot serve as the basis of a false light claim. Neither can the statement plausibly support a § 652D claim for improperly publicizing a private matter. Because Rodriguez himself had previously publicized his threat to do ‘a significant amount of damage’ to public citizens in his email to 48 members of the campus community, it is not plausible that Coughlin’s complaint to the police constituted improper publicity.”
     The court dismissed all Rodriguez’s remaining claims except his Stored Communications Act claim.

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