Court Sides With Student Who Ranted About Faculty Member On Facebook

By Justin Lafferty 

As more and more middle school and high school students log onto Facebook, courts have had to reassess the definition of virtual free speech. Many younger members use Facebook to vent frustration, but when posts are aimed toward teachers and faculty members, where is the line drawn? A Minnesota court recently ruled in favor of a 12-year-old student who posted unfavorably about a school staff member on Facebook, citing that the school’s demand for her social media passwords violated First and Fourth Amendment rights.

The Wall Street Journal notes that this will continue to become an issue as social media use becomes more widespread. But not all states side with the students. A new law in North Carolina makes it a crime for students to post to Facebook, Twitter, or any other site statements that are meant to “intimidate or torment faculty.”

In Minnesota, the 12-year-old girl posted to Facebook (granted, the minimum age for an account is 13) about her dislike for a school employee and how another staff member had “told on her.” She was punished for these posts — an action the court decided violated the student’s First Amendment right to free speech. After school officials learned that the student had an out-of-school sex-related conversation with a classmate, they demanded her social media login information. The court claimed that this was an unlawful search, breaching the student’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The court maintained that out-of-school statements made via the social network are protected by the First Amendment and should not be punished.

Attorney Bradley Shear, who specializes in social media, wrote about this case on his blog:

Public schools that require any of their students to register their social media user names, or to provide access to their password-protected digital content via required Facebook friending or the installation of a third-party software application for any reason, are in clear violation of the First and Fourth Amendment. Therefore, any school that utilizes a social media monitoring company to track their student-athletes online may want to change their policy immediately before their legal liability exponentially increases.

Readers: Do you think students’ Facebook posts about school (when not posted during school hours or on campus) are fair game for punishment, or should they be protected by the First Amendment?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.