Federal appeals court upholds right to conduct anonymous surveys in schools

Administrators at a New Jersey high school didnot violate student privacy rights by administering an anonymous survey askingquestions on sensitive topics, according to a federal appealscourt.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month thatRidgewood Board of Education administrators acted lawfully in asking its middleand high school students to answer survey questions on sensitive topics duringthe school day. A group of parents and students had sued the school, allegingthe survey violated the students’ constitutional right to privacy and theFirst Amendment prohibition on compelled speech.

The survey askedquestions on sensitive topics, including drug abuse, frequency of worship andsexual activity. It also asked students to agree or disagree with statementssuch as “my parents push me to be the best I can be” and “myparents give me help and support when I need it.” Parents were not given achance to “opt-out” of the survey.

While the survey,administered by school administrators in 1999 and proposed by a coalition ofcommunity groups, was intended to be voluntary and anonymous, the court foundevidence indicating that students may not have been clearly told that they didnot have to participate.

The court ultimately held that even if itwas not voluntary, it did not violate student privacy rights because the results“were revealed only in the aggregate, in a format that did not permitindividual identification.” The court also struck the compelled speechclaims, holding that even if the survey was not voluntary, there was never a“disclosure” of the information in a format that would be personallyidentifiable.

The court also found that the administration of thesurvey without parental consent did not violate the constitution. Although thecourt acknowledged that parents have certain constitutional rights to makedecisions for their children, such as the decision to attend a public or areligious private school, “the decision whether to permit a middle or highschool student to participate in a survey of this type is not a matter ofcomparable gravity.”

The parents and students have decided notto appeal the case further, according to Nisha N. Mohammed, a spokesperson forthe Rutherford Institute, whose attorneys were representingthem.

After this case went to court, the New Jersey legislatureenacted the state’s “Protection of Pupil Rights” law, whichrequires prior written parental consent before a school district can administera survey on the same subject matter. It does not limit the administration ofsurveys by student media.

Case: C.N. v. Ridgewood Bd. of Educ., 430F.3d 159 (3rd Cir. 2005).

SPLC View: Although this case involved asurvey administered by school officials, not student journalists, it representsa big win for student media. In recent years, school officials have cracked downon surveys by student media — including voluntary and anonymous surveys— claiming that they violated “some” law. The SPLC has repeatedly rejectedsuch claims, arguing that not only is there no law that prohibits studentjournalists from asking questions of their classmates but also that the FirstAmendment protects such vital, newsgathering activity. This case should go along way toward settling that question and making clear that a survey createdand distributed by students to their classmates, which is voluntary and whoseresults do not identify specific students without their permission, is bothpermitted and protected.