Civil liberties groups call on Tenn. school district to revise 'unconstitutional' tech policy

TENNESSEE — A Tennessee school district’s technology and internet policy, which allows school administrators to examine electronic devices students bring from home and monitor communications or data transmitted on the district’s network, violates students’ rights to free speech and protection against “suspicionless searches,” The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a letter to the district Monday.

The two groups sent the letter — calling for the Williamson County School District to revise its policy — on behalf of Daniel Pomerantz, a parent who refused to sign the policy in June. As a result, his daughter, a kindergartener, was unable to use school computers or internet during class activities.

However, his wife signed it in early September so their daughter could participate, Pomerantz said.

The 10-page letter requested the district to suspend and modify the policy immediately because the policy “oversteps the school district’s authority.”

“We shouldn’t have to give up our First and Fourth Amendment rights to get our required free education,” Pomerantz said.

The district’s policy, last revised in April, is intended to “protect students and adults from obscene information,” limit access to “material harmful to minors” and avoid viruses. Each student’s parent or guardian can agree or refuse to give the district permission to feature the student in school or district publications.

According to the policy, school officials may examine the smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices students bring from home to enforce compliance with the policy, investigate disciplinary issues and for “any other school-related purpose.” Additionally, students who bring devices from home may only use them for class purposes and cannot take or send photos of people at school unless a teacher assigns it.

The policy states social media use inside or outside of school may cause disruption in the classroom, and there may be consequences for students’ use of social media that the district considers “inappropriate, unauthorized and illegal.”

The policy reaches “so far outside of the classroom and outside of the school building into people’s personal lives” that it violates students’ free speech, Thomas Castelli, legal director for the ACLU-TN, said.

The letter said the policy violates students’ Fourth Amendment rights because students are subject to searches of their data on the district’s network at any time “whether or not they are suspected of wrongdoing.”

Castrelli said the social media policy limits students’ free speech when they are out of school and off school property. Students aren’t allowed to post photos of school friends at home because the policy requires permission from a teacher or administrator, he said.

Williamson County School District Superintendent Mike Looney said in a statement the school district’s attorneys are reviewing the letter and the request to change the policy. Chairman of the Williamson County Schools Board of Education P.J. Mezera declined to comment.

If the district doesn’t change the policy, Pomerantz said he will consult with his attorneys to determine the best action to take.

“When you’re dealing with free speech, you’re not just looking at ‘was someone punished for speaking out,’” Castelli said, “but also ‘is the government doing something that might have a chilling effect or have kind of a preventative effect on student speech?’”

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.