Coach sued for requesting Facebook logins

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.

“There was a blatant violation of her right to privacy, her right to free speech, her right to free association, and her right to due process,” Silin said in a message to SPLC. “It’s egregious to me that a [then] 14-year-old girl is essentially told you can’t speak your mind, can’t publish anything, can’t be honest or have an open discussion with someone without someone else essentially eavesdropping.”

Mark Graber, a professor of law and government at the University of Maryland and an expert on constitutional law, agreed with the plaintiff’s attorney.

Asking for students’ Facebook passwords is akin to the police “asking to search your car without a reason,” Graber said in an interview with eSchool News. “If the school and coach wanted to look at those profiles just in case there were any instances of underage drinking, et cetera, without any reason for suspicion, that’s unconstitutional. There’s no clear and present danger.”

Thomas Hutton, a senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, struck a more cautious tone in discussing the case.

“The big thing here is to realize everything so far is one-sided, because we only know the plaintiff’s version. So everything is ‘allegedly’,” Hutton noted. “I think there’s more to this story than meets the eye. It states the mother tried to seek relief for her daughter from the school but doesn’t go into detail–at least, not yet, since it was just a filing.”

He added: “Another thing to consider is, was it the district’s fault? Perhaps it was one employee who went off by herself without consulting the district. Perhaps this employee didn’t understand the technology she was dealing with.”

Jackson could have a strong case, Hutton said, “if what the coach looked at and based her discipline on was indeed a private part of Facebook.” However, he added, “there is always leniency when it involves extra-curricular activities. These are optional.”

Silin said she is not aware of any clause in the district’s policy that allows administrators to punish students for social-networking content–much less, demand their passwords. The school does have a conduct code for cheerleaders, which asks them to be “role models to all,” Silin said. But that should not “extend to her private conversations with another student.”

If the court rules for Jackson, it could set a precedent that school administrators may not ask for private social-networking profile information without due cause.

If the court rules in favor of the school, however, it could open the door for school officials and teachers to demand to see any student’s social-networking profile and punish the student accordingly–both for pictures and for speech, regardless of whether the actions took place at home.

“I think this case, whether or not it even goes to court, is a big deal, because it’s the first to deal with this issue,” Hutton said. “The publicity is has received will at least cause schools and districts to look at their policies, examine them, and make sure all employees have a firm understanding of those policies.”

He concluded: “If the case does go to the plaintiff, schools will surely be especially careful. Even if it’s only a local court with no long reach, districts and students will look to this case as an example.”


Student Press Law Center

WAPT News interview with the Jacksons

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Mass Notification Systems resource center. Terrorism. Severe weather. Violent crimes. Water main breaks. Gas leaks. All of these scenarios can occur instantly. The question is, will your schools be prepared to communicate urgent news before it’s too late? Go to: Mass Notification Systems

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