The 24/7 school day: Webcam lawsuit alleges new level of “creepiness”

From the ‘“OMG — If This Is True…’ Department” come stories from the Associated Press and the Philaelphia Inquirer today that the parents of a student attending school just outside Philadelphia have filed a lawsuit on their son’s behalf alleging that school officials used Webcams installed on school-supplied laptop computers to spy on students while at home.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania, alleges that Lower Merrion School District officials remotely activated the Webcams to peek on students and, in at least one case, confronted a student for his “improper behavior” at home, citing a Webcam photo as evidence.

Frankly — even though we can certainly attest that way too many school officials continue to wrongly assume that their “in-school” authority gives them the right to control and/or punish students for their off-campus speech 24/7 — this one is pretty hard to believe and we’ll reserve final judgment until all the facts are in.

But, whether accurate or not, we hope that the very possibility it may be true serves as yet another wake-up call to judges that they have turned a blind eye to the conduct of school officials for way too long. Judges have a duty to say what the law is and ensure that everyone — including citizens who also happen to be students — can seek its protection. For too long, judges have balked at ruling in cases alleging misconduct by school officials, saying that they don’t want to “second-guess” or “micromanage” school policies or administrative conduct — matters they say that are best handled locally.

But when did simply enforcing the law become inappropriate “second-guessing?” No one says that school administrators — and all government officials — shouldn’t be given near-complete leeway when it comes to doing their jobs — as long as they’re doing those job legally. But courts exist to blow the whistle on unlawful conduct and it is time to stop telling students that — simply because they are students — the courtroom doors are closed to them when challenging conduct that would be illegal anywhere else. School officials are not some sort of divine, omniscient beings. And it’s time judges stopped treating them as such.

We hope the facts alleged in this case prove untrue. We hope that these allegations cross a line that even the worst of school officials would recognize is beyond the pale. Indeed, in years past, we might have dismissed a claim like this as frivolous or the work of  a single, rogue employee who did something clearly prohibited by district policy. But given the mindset of some of the school officials we have witnessed in recent years — a mindset created in part by judges unwilling to draw clear lines for them — we are, sadly, compelled to keep watching.