Third Circuit upholds right to conduct anonymous surveys in schools

NEW JERSEY — Administrators at a New Jersey high school did not violate student privacy rights by administering an anonymous survey asking questions on sensitive topics, according to a federal appeals court.

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

While the survey, administered by school administrators in 1999 and proposed by a coalition of community groups, was intended to be voluntary and anonymous, the court found evidence indicating that students may not have been clearly told that they did not have to participate. Among that evidence was that every student eligible to take the survey did so, including at least one student who was required to ”make up” the survey due to absence.

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

The court ultimately held, however, that whether or not the survey was voluntary, it did not violate student privacy rights, because the results ”were revealed only in the aggregate, in a format that did not permit individual identification.” The court also struck the compelled speech claims, holding that even if the survey was not voluntary, there was never a ”disclosure” of the information in a format that would be personally identifiable.

”We can find no authority to suggest that merely requesting such highly generalized information or releasing it in the aggregate violates the Constitution,” Judge Fisher wrote on behalf of the court.

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

After this case went to court, the New Jersey legislature enacted the state’s ”Protection of Pupil Rights” law, which requires prior written parental consent before a school district can administer a survey on the same subject matter. It does not limit the administration of surveys by student media.

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

by Adam Goldstein, SPLC legal fellow