The Need For a Disciplined Approach to Cyberbullying

The legal boundaries for school discipline for cyberbullying continues to be unclearR.S. v. Minnewaska Area School District No. 2149, 2012 WL 3870868 (D. Minn. Sept. 6, 2012); S.J.W. v. Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, 696 F.3d 771 (8th Cir. Oct. 17, 2012)

As much as cyberbullying is gaining media attention, clear guidance on what schools can do about it is still lacking.  In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review three free speech challenges involving social media content posted by students.  As a result, courts continue to grapple with defining the boundaries of school discipline for student online conduct, particularly when it happens off-campus.  A pair of recent cases illustrates this trend.

R.S. v. Minnewaska Area School District No. 2149: A 12-year old sixth grader (R.S.) posted on her Facebook page that she “hated” her school’s adult hall monitor.  R.S. posted the comment from her home outside of school hours.  The comment somehow found its way to the principal, who considered the comment a form of bullying.  The principal gave R.S. detention and required her to apologize to the hall monitor.  In a second incident, R.S. posted a comment on her Facebook wall stating: “I want to know who the F%$# [sic] told on me.”  For this, R.S was suspended for a day and prohibited from going on a class ski trip.  On a third occasion, school officials learned that R.S. was communicating with a male student on the Internet about sexual topics (when confronted, the male student admitted that he initiated the conversation).  The school officials called R.S. out of class to meet with them and the deputy sheriff assigned to the school.  They demanded to know her email and Facebook usernames and passwords.  Feeling pressured, R.S. complied.  The school officials then logged into her Facebook account and viewed the public and private messages she had posted on the site.  The school did not formally discipline R.S. any further.

The punishment of R.S. violated her First Amendment right to free speech

Judge Davis of the federal district court of Minnesota looked to the Tinker line of cases for guidance and concluded that the First Amendment prohibits school authorities from punishing students for out-of-school statements the statements are true threats or reasonably calculated to reach the school environment and are so egregious as to pose a serious safety risk or other substantial disruption there.  R.S.’s Facebook posts were not threatening, the court found, and while the posts might have been reasonably calculated to reach a school audience, that possibility alone did not justify her punishment.  An out-of-court statement must be more than inappropriate.  It must potentially cause a substantial disruption in the school before it can be punished.

The school violated R.S.’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unlawful searches and seizures

Students enjoy a Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by school officials.  But did R.S. have a reasonable expectation of privacy as to the information posted on her Facebook account that only her Facebook friends could see?  The court said yes.  There is no meaningful difference between a password-protected private Facebook message and other forms of private electronic correspondence.  The court also found that the school officials had no legitimate governmental interest for reviewing her private communications.  Notably, there was no threat that R.S.’s private posts would cause a disruption in the classroom.

R.S. had a viable claim against the school for invasion of privacy

Again, the court focused on R.S.’s expectation of privacy.  The court analogized private Facebook messages to email messages, to which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.  The court summarily rejected the schools’ argument that R.S. used Facebook in violation of the site’s terms of use because she was a minor.  The court failed to see how a violation of a website’s terms of use could destroy an expectation of privacy.  Also unpersuasive was the school’s argument that R.S. compromised her privacy interest by allowing her mother and one other person view her Facebook account.  It would be unreasonable, the court explained, to conclude that a person gives up all expectation of privacy as to the contents of his or her password-protected email account just by showing an email to another individual.

S.J.W. v. Lee’s Summit R-7 School District: Twin brothers (the “Wilsons”) who were high school juniors created a website called NorthPress.  Part of NorthPress was a blog intended to discuss, satirize, and “vent” about events at the Wilsons’ school.  Because the site was hosted on a Dutch domain, the site would not show up in the results of a Google search by a user in the U.S., but anyone knowing the site’s URL could access it.  The Wilsons added posts to the NorthPress blog containing a variety of offensive and racist comments as well as sexually explicit and degrading comments about particular female classmates whom they identified by name.  The racist posts discussed fights at the school and mocked black students.  A third student added another racist post.

The Wilsons initially told only several of their friends about NorthPress and claimed they intended only their friends to know about it, but word about the site quickly spread to the study body at their school.  The school initially suspended the Wilsons for ten days, and after the matter went through further proceedings at the school district level, the Wilsons were suspended for 180 days but allowed to enroll in another school for the duration of their suspensions.  The Wilsons filed a lawsuit for a preliminary injunction to lift the suspensions.  The district court granted the preliminary injunction, but on appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed.

Reviewing cases that analyze the applicability of Tinker to off-campus student speech, the Eighth Circuit ruled that the blog posts in question targeted the school, could reasonably be expected to reach the school or impact the environment, and caused considerable disturbance and disruption.  As a result, the Wilsons were unlikely to succeed on the merits, and so they were not entitled to an injunction.

LegalTXTS Lesson:  Cyberbullying is a serious issue, but schools should be careful not to overreact.  The reality is that much of the online material students post and share these days has a good chance of offending someone or being considered inappropriate by adults.  That doesn’t give schools the authority to police online content however they like.  Off-campus speech is punishable when it threatens to endanger danger to another student or cause substantial disruption in the school environment, but not merely because some would find it “inappropriate.”

How this rule is applied, however, depends on the sensitivity of the court.  The courts in R.S. and S.J.W. could have gone either way.  The court in R.S. could have concluded that the sexual conversations between two very young students presented a risk of substantial disruption in the classroom.  On the other hand, the court in S.J.W. could have held that the blog was never targeted at the school community, and therefore, its contents did not justify meting out school discipline.  Perhaps we’ll get more consistency in court rulings after Supreme Court decides to weigh in on the constitutional limits to combating cyberbullying.


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