Can students take photos of other students in school without their knowledge?

Every week, Student Press Law Center attorneys answer a frequently asked question about student media law in “Legal Question of the Week.”

Q: So, there’s a new Instagram trend of photographing and posting pictures of people without their knowledge (or permission) and a number of such IG accounts have cropped up about our school. The accounts have posted pictures of students’ shoes without their knowledge (sometimes under bathroom stalls); pictures of students sleeping in class; and pictures showing PDA violations. Parents are upset about these accounts making their kids look bad and want the administration to take them down. What authority does the school administration have to shut these accounts down? Are students allowed to take pictures of other students in the school building because it’s a public venue? If the picture is taken on school grounds, does that mean that the school has control?

A: You’ve asked a rather complicated question.

As you may or may not know, the US Supreme Court recently handed down a decision that set the bar a bit higher for school officials in punishing students for their off-campus speech. The twist here is that you say the photos are being taken on-campus (even if the posts are created/published while they are off-campus.) That probably gives the school more authority, but even then the school would likely still need to show that the posts were either unlawful (and I’ll talk about the privacy law concerns next) or that they significantly disrupted school. That may be a bit more difficult given the fact that these sound like photos which are more likely to cause embarrassment or hurt feelings than actual disruption.

As for privacy law… The law recognizes that there are places or topics where people can claim they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and that everyone must respect that. For example, you have a reasonable expectation that your medical issues or details of your sex life, for example, are generally off-limits unless those things have genuine news value. You also have a reasonable expectation of privacy, for example, when you’re alone in your bedroom or bathroom.

So some of the things you describe — e.g, taking pics of people under a bathroom stall — may have crossed the privacy law line, which would allow the person photographed to sue the photographer. It would also give the school grounds to bar “bathroom pics” and/or punish the photographer. On the other hand, there are certain places on campus — e.g., a crowded school hallway or lunchroom, the school parking lot or stadium at a football game — where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy and photos would be lawful. Photos in classrooms seem to fall in that gray middle zone. As a rule, we tell student photographers that they should get the teacher’s permission and announce their presence in a classroom before taking pics. California law actually requires such permission by statute. A school could be on reasonable grounds in banning cell phone/camera use in classrooms as long as any established rules were uniformly and fairly enforced.

Contact the Student Press Law Center’s hotline and speak to an attorney if you feel that you’ve been censored. 

Legal questions should be directed toward SPLC’s legal hotline. Legal Questions of the Week are selected based on trends in the legal hotline. The legal hotline is confidential and no identifying information will be used in the Legal Question of the Week segment.