Panel Urged to Deny Immunity for School Cellphone Search

ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for the parents of a Georgia high school student who claim their daughter’s privacy rights were violated when school administrators seized and searched her cellphone asked an 11th Circuit panel Friday to revoke their immunity.

(AP Photo)

Richard and Loretta Jackson sued Chattahoochee County Middle High School in January 2017 after school officials searched their daughter’s phone when rumors began circulating that she was “bad-talking” a fellow student for not making the volleyball team, according to court records.

The daughter, who is identified only by her initials EDJ in filings, was using text messages to make the alleged comments.

She was questioned by members of the school’s administrative staff. During the questioning, Bo Oates, the school’s assistant principal, allegedly asked her to unlock her phone and allow him to see if she was sending negative text messages about the other student.

After Oates reviewed EDJ’s text messages with a student identified as “B,” she says he continued to review other messages from her family members, best friend and ex-boyfriend.

The girl claims she did not give Oates permission to search her phone, according to a December 2017 district court order dismissing her claims of Fourth Amendment violations.   

Her father also alleged his First Amendment rights were violated when his communications with school officials were restricted after he threatened litigation and an altercation took place at a school event that ended in his removal from the premises.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land in the Middle District of Georgia granted the school officials’ motion for summary judgment on the parents’ claims, finding they are entitled to qualified immunity.

Land ruled that it would not have been “clearly obvious” to a school official in Oates’ position “that the Fourth Amendment prevented him from conducting the search of EDJ’s phone as he did.”

According to the ruling, Oates believed the negative text messages might have constituted harassment, which is prohibited by the student code of conduct. He therefore had “reasonable grounds to suspect that a search of the text messages on EDJ’s cell phone would reveal evidence that she was violating or had violated the school’s rule against harassment.”

Judge Land also found that the expanded search into the girl’s text messages with her family members was warranted because she could have disguised her contacts and messages by changing the names of her contacts.

Torin Togut, an attorney representing the Jacksons, urged the three-judge 11th Circuit panel Friday to reverse the district court’s finding of immunity.

“The expanded search of the phone exceeded the scope of the alleged infraction. It was not relevant to the search in the first place. The infraction was incredibly minor,” Togut argued.

“Everything about this is minor,” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor Jr. responded, shaking his head.

Pryor added, “There was a reasonable threat of violence. School officials were trying to sort it out. The question is whether a reasonable school official could look around the text messages to figure this out.”

Arguing on behalf of the school officials, attorney Franklin Coleman of Perry & Walters asked the panel to uphold the immunity ruling.

He told the panel that Oates “had reasonable suspicion that there was a moderate chance of discovering evidence of a violation of school rules and policies against bullying and harassment.”

Pryor was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum and Senior U.S. District Judge Anne Conway, sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida.

The panel did not indicate when they might issue a decision in the case.

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