Minnesota school that demanded student's Facebook password settles First Amendment lawsuit

MINNESOTA — A Minnesota school district and a student have settled a lawsuit that claimed the teenager’s constitutional rights were violated when middle school administrators viewed her Facebook account and punished her for its content.

The Minnewaska School District agreed to change its policies to increase student privacy and to pay a $70,000 settlement that will be divided between Riley Stratton’s family for damages and the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which represented Stratton. The district made no admission of liability in the settlement.

“I am so happy that my case is finally over, and that my school changed its rules so what happened to me doesn’t happen to other students,” Stratton told the ACLU of Minnesota. “It was so embarrassing and hard on me to go through, but I hope that schools all over see what happened and don’t punish other students the way I was punished.”

The 2012 lawsuit alleged violations of Stratton’s First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

In early 2011, Stratton, then 12, posted on her Facebook wall that she “hated” a hall monitor at school who was being “mean” to her. She didn’t use a school computer or its internet to write the post, which was shared after school hours, according to the lawsuit. Minnewaska Area Middle School principal Pat Falk “somehow obtained a screenshot” of her post, called her into his office. School officials said her post constituted bullying. She received a detention for being “rude/discourteous” and was forced to write an apology to the hall monitor.

She then took to Facebook to see who shared the post with the principal, posting “I want to know who the f%$# told on me,” according to the lawsuit. Stratton was given one-day, in-school suspension and prohibited from attending her class ski trip in response.

In another incident in March 2011, the school received a call from a student’s guardian, who complained that her son was communicating with Stratton about sex. School officials demanded Stratton give them her email and Facebook login information and threatened detention if she did not comply.

“(Stratton) was intimidated, particularly by the presence of Deputy Mitchell. She had no choice, and eventually, she involuntarily gave the group her login information,” the lawsuit says.

Teresa Nelson, the ACLU of Minnesota’s legal director, said Stratton’s case was part of a “troubling trend” of schools in the state policing students’ Facebook posts. Stratton’s case was particularly “egregious,” she said, describing the situations as “blatant examples of schools overreaching into private off campus student speech.”

Schools don’t have the authority to police what students are doing or saying off campus, especially when those actions have no effect on campus, Nelson said.

Nelson said Stratton and her family wanted to prevent this from happening to other people and the policy changes adopted by the district do this.

The changes to the policy include limits in the scope of searches, a requirement that searches be pursuant to a reasonable suspicion of the violation of school rules or the law, and adding that voluntary consent must be obtained. The settlement additionally requires annual training in enforcing the policy.

Timothy O’Connor, who represented the district, called the policy changes “as significant as changing ‘happy’ to ‘glad.’”

“The changes to school policy proposed by the ACLU provide no meaningful change in the way schools will address the impact of statements on social media to the school environment,” O’Connor said in a statement.

Schools are increasingly facing the “unforgiving task of either addressing the fallout from social media or ignoring it,’ O’Connor said.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) determined that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” But Tinker doesn’t provide enough guidance for the modern age, he said.

Tinker may have provided some guidance to address disruption and discipline when every student wore an arm band to protest Vietnam, but there is little guidance for teachers in today’s world where nearly every student is armed with a smart phone and access to social media,” O’Connor said.

Schools need to apply the same First and Fourth Amendment standards to online communications as they do for any other off-campus student speech, Nelson said

She called the case a “cautionary tale.”

“I think the possibility of facing similar litigation is a deterrent for other schools, and hopefully will help other schools recognize that maybe what they are doing is also inappropriate,” Nelson said.

Contact Coutré by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.