The Supreme Court once famously said that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969). Implicit in this quote is the understanding that outside the schoolhouse gate, students are entitled to full First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, educators (and even some judges) seem to have forgotten this recently, with a spate of cases involving students being reprimanded for off-campus speech. Although many previous examples have at least involved distasteful public speech surrounding school officials, the latest example is especially egregious, as it involves private speech that does not really implicate the school at all.
Mandi Jackson was just starting a new school year at Pearl High School when she was asked, as a member of the school’s cheerleading squad, to provide her coach with the password to her Facebook account. While other students surreptitiously deleted their accounts via mobile phone, Mandi complied with her coach’s request. According to her complaint, she was rewarded for her honesty by being “publicly reprimanded, punished and humiliated” by school officials. She was also “forced to sit out of cheer and dance training and refrain from participation at school sponsored events, for which she had enrolled and paid various fees and costs of participation.”
Apparently, Jackson’s coach had accessed her Facebook account and discovered a “profanity-laced” exchange of private messages between Jackson and another cheerleader. He is then alleged to have forwarded these messages to teachers and other school officials. Given the school’s reaction, the messages at issue must have been a matter of serious school concern, right? Actually, according to the SPLC, Jackson had merely asked (albeit in the aforementioned profanity-laced manner) the cheerleading captain to “stop harassing” several other cheerleaders.
We’ve reported previously on the related phenomenon of employers demanding their employees hand over passwords for social networking sites. It boggles my mind that these individuals, and now school officials, believe they have the right to invades 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.
Given the poor quality of American schools - the USA failed to make the top 20 in math or science on the 2006 PISA (the reading scores for the USA were thrown out due to a test misprint) - perhaps educators should focus less on policing students’ off-campus speech, and more on actually teaching.
You can watch this case unfold through our database entry, Pearl Public School District v. Jackson.
(Lee Baker is a rising second-year law student at Harvard Law School and a CMLP legal intern. When he was in high school, Facebook didn’t even exist.)