In a case that could set a precedent for whether school officials can legally peek into students’ private social-networking accounts without justifiable cause, a high school cheerleader is suing her school and former coach for what she claims is a violation of her rights to privacy and free speech.
Two years ago, Mandi Jackson, a cheerleader at Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., and the other members of the cheering squad were asked by cheerleading coach Tommie Hill to give her their Facebook login passwords. According to reports, Hill wanted the passwords to check and make sure none of the squad members were drinking or participating in any illegal behavior.
While the other members of the squad quickly used their cell phones to access the web and change or delete their profiles, Jackson did not.
“I didn’t know if I would get in trouble or not … because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with what was on my Facebook [profile],” Jackson said during an interview with local WAPT News.
Later that night, Hill reportedly looked through Jackson’s profile and found a conversation between Jackson and another squad member that used profanity. The conversation was part of Jackson’s personal Facebook eMail correspondence, which is not available on any publicly displayed Facebook page.
After this discovery, not only was Jackson prohibited from cheering at games, which she had already paid participation fees to do, but Hill also sent Jackson’s private Facebook information to school administrators and other cheerleading coaches, according to the lawsuit.
Now, Jackson claims she is being ostracized at school. Because all her friends were part of the squad, “none of them talk to me,” she told WAPT News. “One of them [whom] I used to be friends with in middle school all the way up to freshman year, she talks to me a little–but seriously, none of them talk to me.”
She said she’s dreading her return to school as a junior and fears her fellow students, as well as her teachers, will shun her.
According to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), several months after the incident, Jackson was nominated for a “spirit stick” award for the previous year, but the coaches said she did not deserve the honor. Jackson also did not take certain academic courses because the cheerleading coaches taught them.
“Even now she’s afraid to speak her mind on anything,” said Jackson’s attorney, Rita Nahlik Silin. “Because of this situation, she’s afraid of being punished for anything she does inside or outside the school.”
Jackson and her mother, Missy Jackson, are seeking $100 million from Hill and the high school for what the suit claims are violations of Jackson’s right to privacy and freedom of speech.
School officials filed a motion saying Jackson and all cheerleaders were told their coaches would monitor social-networking web sites. The motion asks the judge to dismiss the case.
Several previous cases have tested the limits of students’ rights to free speech on social networks and on publicly available web pages off campus, and the courts generally have set the bar high for administrators to prove such postings disrupted the learning environment in their schools. But Jackson’s case might be the first to examine whether school leaders have a right to request and view private online conversations conducted outside of school.
“I would have been completely fine with the school officials looking at my public [profile on] Facebook, but I think they went too far with getting my password and looking at my personal messages between me and my peers,” Jackson told the SPLC. “They were conversations between me and my friends, so I shouldn’t have gotten in trouble for them.”
According to some legal experts, Jackson might have a strong case