Lawsuit claims Minn. school officials demanded sixth-grader's Facebook password

MINNESOTA — TheAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota sued the Minnewaska Area SchoolDistrict on Tuesday, claiming the district violated a student’s constitutionalrights when it punished her for off-campus Facebook posts and demanded herFacebook password.

The lawsuit alleges violations of the student’s First Amendmentright to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonablesearches and seizures.

During the 2010-2011 school year, “R.S.” was a 12-year-oldsixth-grader. According to the complaint, she posted a comment on her Facebookprofile that “she ‘hated’ a school hall monitor for being ‘mean’ to her.”

Principal Pat Falk called the student into his office thenext day. According to the complaint, Falk “somehow obtained a screenshot ofR.S.’s Facebook post” and gave her detention for being “rude/discourteous” andthe student had to apologize to the hall monitor.

According to the complaint, a couple of days later R.S.posted to Facebook, “I want to know who the f%$# told on me.” R.S. received aone-day in-school suspension and missed a class ski trip for her comment onFacebook, according to the complaint. All Facebook comments were madeoff-campus.

Later in the school year, another student’s guardian calledthe school to complain that her son was talking about sex with R.S. on hiscomputer, according to the complaint.

The complaint states that Sheriff’s Deputy Gilbert Mitchell,guidance counselor Mary Walsh and another school employee, “demanded that R.S.give them her email and Facebook login information and passwords… [they] loggedinto R.S.’s Facebook account, apparently using Deputy Mitchell’s computer. R.S.was in the room when school officials started searching her private accounts,but she could not see the computer or control what the three adults wereviewing.”

The deputy did not have a search warrant, according to thecomplaint.

Falk, who could not be reached for comment, was apparentlyunaware of the search.

Teresa Nelson, an attorney with the Minnesota ACLU said thestudent’s comments did not warrant discipline because the posts did not happenon school grounds.

“We hope that this will be resolved without a drawn outlitigation and we hope to settle damages for our student,” Nelson said. “But,we also want the school to take steps so this doesn’t happen in the future,whether this means a policy change or new procedures to be implemented.”

Greg Ohl, Minnewaska Area School District superintendent,said the district received the complaint Tuesday night.

“We reviewed the documents and obviously we are not inagreement with the substance of the complaint,” Ohl said. “We referred this toour insurance carrier and we’ll be working with them to account for aresolution and hopefully reason can prevail.”

Ohl declined to comment on the specific allegations in thelawsuit.

Ohl said the district’s insurance carrier, ContinentalWestern Group, will appoint an attorney to handle the case.

“We’re reviewing the complaint and we’ll be formulating aresponse through our insurance company’s legal counsel,” Ohl said. “We’reconfident with our staff and we’re sure our folks responded reasonably for thesituation.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press LawCenter, said different legal standards apply to the different allegations inthe complaint.

“You’re allowed to not like people,” Goldstein said. “It’sreally none of the school’s business if you go home and say you don’t likesomething.”

Goldstein said that R.S. should have been given a Mirandawarning before the deputy asked for her login information and a parent shouldhave been present.

“On the issue that she was forced to apologize, that is aclear violation of her First Amendment rights,” Goldstein said. “I expect acourt isn’t going to have any problem looking at this event and deciding torule against the school.”

The ACLU is seeking a court order requiring the district tochange its policies, a declaration that the student’s rights were violated,unspecified damages and an injunction preventing school officials frompunishing students for off-campus speech.

R.S. is still at the middle school, Nelson said, and shehopes the student doesn’t receive any retaliation as a result of filing thelawsuit.

“We took this case because we believe these types of thingshappen often, especially in small towns,” Nelson said. “We wanted to make sureother schools can learn from this and that they will take pause before they tryto do this to their students.”