School May Be Liable for Browsing Girl’s Facebook

     MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A school district must face claims that it violated the rights of a student by forcing her to reveal her Facebook password, a federal judge ruled.
     R.S., who sued the Minnewaska Area School District No. 2149 anonymously through her mother claims, that she was 12 when she criticized a school hall monitor in an early 2011 Facebook post.
     “She wrote something to the effect of: ‘[I hate] a Kathy person at school because [Kathy] was mean to me,'” U.S. District Judge Michael Davis wrote, summarizing the girl’s allegations.
     The message, posted to R.S.’s own account, occurred at home, outside school hours.
     After a classmate told the principal about the post, K.S. was given detention and forced to apologize.
     After R.S. called the tattletale out on Facebook – writing, “I want to know who the f%$# [sic] told on me” – the middle school suspended her for a day.
     R.S. said the scrutiny did not end there. The school allegedly learned that R.S. and a male classmate had discussed “sexual topics” online.
     After R.S. told a counselor that she had discussed “naughty things” with the boy, again off school grounds and outside school hours, she was called into another meeting with the counselor, two deputy sheriffs and another school employee.
     “R.S. alleges that the school officials then demanded that she provide them with her email and Facebook usernames and passwords,” Davis summarized. “When [she] hesitated and stated that she did not remember her passwords, the officials called her a liar and threatened her with detention if she did not give them her passwords. Feeling threatened and without a choice, [she] eventually relented and the school officials the information that they had requested. The school officials logged into [her] Facebook account, viewing public postings along with her private messages.”
     R.S. received no punishment after the school allegedly rifled through her Facebook page, but she claims she that was unable to return to school for several days, having “lost her sense of security.”
     The school district moved to dismiss her subsequent lawsuit, claiming that the allegations do not amount to a constitutional violation and that they nevertheless have immunity.
     Davis said the complaint “sufficiently alleged a custom of punishing and searching private out-of-school online communications by the school defendants.”
     “In a short span of time, R.S. was twice punished for her out-of-school statements and subjected to a search of her private online communications by school officials,” he wrote, noting that the allegations are merely assumed to be true at this stage.
     Since other students have made similar complaints about the district’s behavior, Davis said R.S. may be able to prove “that the school officials implicated here were motivated by, and conducting themselves in accordance with, a ‘continuing, widespread, persistent pattern of unconstitutional conduct.'”
     The school employees also cannot claim qualified immunity because the complaint sufficiently alleges that “a reasonable official would understand that punishing such speech would transgress R.S.’s right to free speech.
     “It is difficult for the court to discern what, if any, legitimate interest the school officials had for perusing R.S.’s private communications,” Davis wrote. “The officials’ search of R.S.’s private correspondence does not appear to have been motivated by an interest in ‘maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds’ or in ‘deal[ing] with breaches of public order.’ Moreover, the school had no reason to believe that the search would return evidence of illegal behavior or violations of school policy.”
     Davis also refused to toss claims against district superintendent Gregory Ohl.
     “While it may be difficult for the plaintiffs to prove their allegations regarding Superintendent Ohl’s role in supporting a custom of unconstitutional practices as alleged, the court concludes that the plaintiffs have alleged facts sufficient to find him liable for such a custom,” the decision states.
     The judge did, however, dismiss R.S.’s claims of civil conspiracy and emotional distress.
     “as troubling as R.S.’s allegations may be … the court concludes that a reasonable fact-finder could not find that the alleged behavior of the school defendants was utterly intolerable to the civilized community,” he wrote.

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