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Cheerleader Sues School Over Facebook Snooping

Early in the 2007 school year at Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., cheerleading coach Tommie Hill demanded that each member of the cheerleading squad give him the passwords to their Facebook accounts. No sooner did the students hand over their passwords than most deleted their accounts. But Mandi Jackson, then 14, did not delete hers. The coach logged into her account and then disseminated private messages between her and another student to teachers, coaches, the principal and the superintendent.

The messages, described as "profanity-laced," were between Jackson and the cheerleading captain and involved Jackson's asking the captain to "stop harassing" several other cheerleaders. But after the messages were circulated by the coach, Jackson was banned from attending cheerleading practices, participating in football games and participating in other school events.

Jackson, through her parents, has now filed a lawsuit in federal court in Mississippi alleging that the school violated the girl's constitutional rights. "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," the girl's lawyer, Rita Nahlik Silin, told the Student Press Law Center. "It's egregious to me that a 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."

At the Citizen Media Law Project, Harvard Law student Lee Baker writes that the case illustrates a disturbing trend among educators to disregard students' constitutional rights. "It boggles my mind that ... school officials ... believe they have the right to invade others’ privacy and eavesdrop on private or semi-private conversations merely because these conversations take place online. Asking for a student’s Facebook password in order to read private messages is akin to asking the student's permission to install a wiretap on his or her phone, something even the most unscrupulous educator (or employer) would hopefully never request."

We do not know whether the Pearl incident occurred out of defiance or ignorance of the constitution. But the case should serve as a warning, writes John Timmer at Ars Technica. "Either through malice or cluelessness, people in positions of authority are increasingly demanding complete access to users' personal accounts and, in moments of weakness, many users appear to be giving it to them," Timmer says. "If there's information you're not comfortable sharing with the world, Facebook, Twitter, and similar services aren't the place for it." 

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 29, 2009 at 01:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)


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