Texas court dismisses student's First Amendment claims in “sexting” case

A Texas district court dismissed a claim that a middle school student’s First Amendment and privacy rights were violated when administrators punished her for “sexting.”

Pearland Independent School District administrators punished the then-12-year-old student after discovering that she sent inappropriate photos of herself and a photo of her friend to other students via text message off school grounds, according to the ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

The photos resembled something found in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, said John Powell, the student’s attorney. “I was trying to show the judge what in contemporary society is not considered lewd,” Powell said. “(The photo) doesn’t actually show anything.”

The school’s code of conduct forbids students from sending or possessing electronic messages that are “…obscene, sexually oriented … damaging to another’s reputation … including cyberbullying and ‘sexting,’  either on or off school school property, if the conduct causes a substantial disruption to the educational environment.”

The photo the student took of herself was meant for her boyfriend and was taken and sent off school grounds, the student’s attorney said. By punishing the student for something she did in her own home, the school officials invaded her right to privacy, Powell said.

“How is this any different than if she took the photo and showed it to her boyfriend in her home?” Powell said. “What happens off the school campus really shouldn’t involve the school officials.”

In its ruling, the court acknowledged that the case raised the “interesting question” of whether the First Amendment protects off-campus speech that is later brought onto campus and whether “lewd” images of a minor can qualify as expressive speech.

The court decided not to tackle those questions and instead ruled that the school officials have qualified immunity, which protects public officials from liability or damages unless their actions violate a “clearly established” law, according to the ruling.

The student’s suit also alleged eight other claims against the school, including that the rules were unconstitutionally vague and that her rights to federal and state due process were violated and various other claims, but all were dismissed by the court.

Pearland School District Administrators could not be reached for comment.