If the allegations in this complaint are true, this is a truly egregious over-reach by a school district that simultaneously invaded a student’s privacy and punished her for protected speech. Here’s the press release from the ACLU of Minnesota:
St. Paul, Minn. – Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against Minnewaska Area Schools and the Pope County Sheriff’s office for violating the constitutional rights of a minor student. R.S’s free speech and privacy rights were violated by the school district in two separate instances involving Facebook. (To protect the privacy of the minor defendant, she will be referred to as R.S.)
In early 2011 R.S. posted a comment, while at home, on her Facebook page about her dislike of a school staff member. The school learned about the comment, and R.S. received a detention and was forced to write an apology to the staff member. She was disciplined again when she cursed on her Facebook page, complaining that someone reported her to the school. This time she was given an in-school suspension and was prohibited from attending a school field trip. The ACLU-MN contends that these sanctions violate her First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
In a second incident R.S. was brought into a school administrator’s office where she was coerced to turn over (against her will) login information to her Facebook and email accounts because of allegations that she had online conversations about sex with another student off-campus. Present at the search was a local deputy along with two school officials. During this process, R.S. was called a liar and told she would be given detentions if she did not give the adults access to her accounts. R.S.’s mother was not informed about the search until after it happened. The Deputy and school officials did not have a warrant to search R.S.’s private accounts. The ACLU-MN alleges in their suit that this violated R.S.’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
The lawsuit seeks damages, declaratory and injunctive relief for the violations of R.S.’s constitutional rights.
“The trauma that these incidents have put R.S. through is completely uncalled for: She was intimidated, frightened, humiliated and sobbing while school administrators were scouring her private communications,” stated cooperating attorney Wally Hilke. “These adults traumatized this minor without any regard for her rights.”
“Students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the school house gate,” stated Charles Samuelson, Executive Director for the ACLU-MN. “The Supreme Court ruled on that in the 1970s, yet schools like Minnewaska seem to have no regard for the standard.”
Cooperating attorneys working on the case are: Wallace Hilke and Bryan Freeman of Lindquist & Vennum PLLP and Professor Raleigh Hannah Levine, William Mitchell College of Law.