Education / Schools, Facebook, Free Speech, Kids, Social Media, Social Networking Websites, Technology

Federal Court Rules: ‘We Don’t Need No Facebook Control; Hey Teacher, Leave Them Kids Alone!’

Welcome to the Matrix, err, 7th grade…

After what feels like years of schools trying to regulate every aspect of children’s social media lives, it looks as though we may have finally hit a threshold. There may actually be an electronic bridge that schools cannot cross in their attempts to spy on educate underage students.

In a particularly egregious case, a Minnesota federal court handed down a ruling that protects off-campus speech and prohibits schools from forcing students to hand over private login information. The ruling will hopefully put the kibosh on a practice that never should have been acceptable to begin with…

In R.S. ex rel. S.S. v. Minnewaska Area Dist., the whole debacle started when a 12-year-old known as R.S. wrote a not-so-nice post about a school hall monitor (gavel bang: WSJ Law Blog):

“[I hate] a Kathy person at school because [Kathy] was mean to me.” R.S.’s posting on her Facebook wall was intended to be accessible by her Facebook “friends,” but not by members of the general public. Facebook’s website is inaccessible from school computers, and R.S. posted the message from home, outside of school hours.

The Minnesota district court was responding to the defendant’s motion to dismiss, so discovery is not yet finished. But if the facts are anywhere close to the versions presented so far, this stuff is pretty upsetting:

Apparently, one of R.S.’s Facebook “friends” — one of the people authorized by R.S. to view her wall postings — viewed and recorded the message about Kathy, as that message made its way to school Principal Pat Falk. Principal Falk called R.S. to his office and told R.S. that he considered the message about Kathy to be impermissible bullying. Principal Falk required R.S. to apologize to the hall monitor and gave her a detention, for behavior described in disciplinary records as having been “rude/discourteous” and “other.”

Oh, boo hoo! The kid is 12. (I’m not sure if it’s worth even mentioning, but she technically shouldn’t even have been on Facebook, as the official terms of service require users to be 13.)

Of course she doesn’t like the hall monitor. No one likes the hall monitor. Maybe the post was rude (ok, it was totally rude), but it wasn’t written at school, and how the hell is that bullying? Does anyone even know what that word means anymore? The message was not only posted on a Facebook page that Kathy never saw, it was from a pre-teen about an adult. Oh yeah, and it was about how hurt R.S. was because she felt victimized. JFC.

But this is just the start. It gets worse:

R.S. was disciplined once more when she published a second message on her Facebook wall which stated: “I want to know who the f%$# [sic] told on me.” School disciplinary records indicate that R.S. was punished for “insubordination” and “dangerous, harmful, and nuisance substances and articles.” In response to this message, R.S. was given a one-day in school suspension and was also prohibited from attending a class ski trip.

Again, assuming the facts are true, how the hell was this insubordination or dangerous in any way?

1) R.S. made no threats to anyone.
2) I would want to know who told on me, too. Doesn’t mean the 12-year-old wants to give the snitch stitches, but of course she’s curious.
3) She self-censored her cursewords to the level that you would see on TV on any channel day or night.

I wish this were the end of R.S’s ordeal, but no. Things got worse still when R.S. was ratted out (again) in an unrelated incident — by a male classmate’s mom, for talking about “naughty things” with her son on Facebook.

Instead of telling the parent, “Maybe it’s time you and little Johnny have the talk,” school officials again ushered little R.S., who at this point I imagine was having panic attacks every time the classroom door opened, into the principal’s office. As a uniformed police officer stood watching, the principal ordered R.S. to hand over her Facebook and email passwords. Then they critiqued her Facebook page while she sat there:

The officials did not limit their search to R.S.’s public messages. They expressed surprise that R.S. had used profanity in some of her Facebook communications. They also allegedly viewed and commented on the fact that R.S. had taken “one or more online Facebook ‘fun and funny’ sex quizzes and had posted the result of some of those quizzes.” All three of the officials — Counselor [Mary] Walsh, Deputy [Deputy Sheriff Gilbert] Mitchell, and the unknown official — examined R.S.’s private correspondence. At no point did they ask R.S.for permission to search through her private correspondence. R.S. alleges that she was “intimidated, frightened, humiliated, and sobbing while she was detained.”

Oh my God. This is like something out of Brazil… or Kafka. Because heaven forbid children on the verge of puberty talk or be curious about what is happening to their bodies. If a child shows any signs of sexuality, send them straight to church or the Scouts. Those storied institutions will certainly protect their innocence.

This is all appalling, but at some level beside the larger point. Namely: the court said schools cannot just barge into students’ online profiles and punish them for behavior that happened off-campus and not during school hours. Likewise, the court cited Tinker v. Des Moines to explain why the school had no right to demand her login details:

For more than forty years, the United States courts have recognized that students do not check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door… Out-of-school speech by a student is subject to even less stringent school regulation than in-school speech.

Hey teacher: Get. Off. My. Lawn. Facebook page.

Court: Student’s Facebook Messages Are Protected Speech [WSJ Law Blog]
R.S. v. Minneswaska Area School District [U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota]

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