Student files lawsuit after coach distributed private Facebook content

MISSISSIPPI — A Mississippi high school student is suing herschool district after a teacher logged into the student’s socialnetworking account and distributed information that embarrassed her and led toher removal from the team.

Through her parents, Mandi Jackson, a student at Pearl High School inPearl, Miss., filed suit against the district on June 16 in the U.S. DistrictCourt of the Southern District of Mississippi, claming the incident violated herconstitutional rights to free speech and privacy, among others.

On Sept. 10, 2007, Pearl High School cheerleading coach Tommie Hillrequired each member of the cheerleading squad to reveal the passwords to theirFacebook accounts, according to the suit.

Many of the students immediately deleted their accounts using their mobilephones, said Jackson’s attorney Rita Nahlik Silin. Jackson did not deleteher account.

The suit alleges Hill later logged onto Jackson’s Facebook accountand disseminated content — including private messages with another PearlHigh School student — to other teachers, cheerleading coaches, andthe principal and superintendent.

According to the suit, the officials “reprimanded, punished, andhumiliated” Jackson for an exchange of profanity-laced messages betweenJackson and the cheerleading captain in which Jackson asked the student to”stop harassing” several of the cheerleaders.

“I would have been completely fine with the school officials lookingat my public [profile on] Facebook, but I think they went too far with gettingmy password and looking at my personal messages between me and my peers,”Jackson, 16, said in a message. “They were conversations between me and myfriends so I shouldn’t have gotten in trouble for them.”

As a result of her private Facebook content, Jackson was not allowed toattend cheerleading practices, participate in football games or partake inschool events for which she had already paid participation fees, according tothe suit.

“There was a blatant violation of her right to privacy, her right tofree speech, her right to free association and her right to due process,”Silin said. “It’s egregious to me that a [then] 14-year-old girl isessentially told you can’t speak your mind, can’t publish anything,can’t be honest or have an open discussion with someone without someone elseessentially eavesdropping.”

Jackson said the coaches were initially looking for photos of studentsdrinking or smoking, which she noted would have been visible on students’public profiles.

The ordeal impacted Jackson’s ability to try out for the cheerleadingsquad the following year, she said, because her removal from the squad affectedher ability to train for the tryouts. Jackson, a cheerleader since6th grade, said it would be difficult to rejoin the team after theordeal.

Several months after the incident, Jackson was nominated for a”spirit stick” award for the previous year, but the coaches said shedid not deserve the honor, Silin said. Jackson also did not take certainacademic courses because the cheer coaches taught them.

School district officials deferred comment to Superintendent John Landerfor any pending litigation. Lander did not return messages for comment.

Silin said they believe Hill accessed Jackson’s Facebook outside ofschool because the district’s Internet filter blocks the site. Jacksonsent the private messages on her personal time while off-campus.

“Nothing was ever done on school property, on school time, or atschool events,” Silin said. “This was purely at her home, separatefrom the school.”

Silin said she is not aware of any clause in the district’s policythat allows administrators to punish students for social networking content– much less, demand their passwords. The school does have a conductcode for cheerleaders, which asks them to be “role models to all,”Silin said. But that should not “extend to her private conversations withanother student,” Silin added.

Silin said the incident has left a lasting impact on her client, who is nowa junior at PHS.

“Even now she’s afraid to speak her mind on anything,”Silin said. “Because of this situation, she’s afraid of beingpunished for anything she does inside or outside the school.”