Should Schools Punish Students for Personal Facebook Posts?

One middle school tried to punish a sixth grader for her mean comments about a teacher—and ended up in court. Were they in the right, or in the wrong? You be the judge.

Noma Bar for Reader’s Digest

One day after school in early 2011, Minnesota sixth grader Riley Stratton wrote on her Facebook wall that she hated a teacher’s aide at her school “because she was mean to me.” She intended for only her Facebook friends to see the post, but another student told the middle school principal about it, who gave Stratton detention for being “discourteous” and instructed her to apologize to the aide. A few days later, Stratton received in-school suspension and wasn’t allowed to attend a class trip for another “inappropriate comment” she’d written on Facebook.

But it didn’t end there. Two months later, in March, a parent called the school to alert administrators that her son, also a student, and Stratton had been writing sexually explicit messages to each other on Facebook. This time, Stratton was met in the office by a school counselor, another female employee of the school, and the police officer assigned to the school. The administrators demanded her password—which she gave to them—and proceeded to read and question her about her Facebook content. After Stratton was sent back to class, the counselor left a voice mail for the girl’s mother, explaining what had transpired. When Stratton got home from school that day, she was “emotionally distraught”—crying, angry, and embarrassed. She didn’t want to go back to school, afraid that the administrators would “hack” into her online accounts again.

The American Civil Liberties Union took on the case, filing a complaint in March 2012 in the Federal District Court of Minnesota. “She was posting on Facebook after school, when she was off school premises, using her own computer and Internet access,” says Stratton’s ACLU attorney, Wallace Hilke. “This was one of the most blatant violations of a student’s constitutional rights that I’d ever come across.” In punishing Stratton, according to Hilke, the school district not only “overreached” its authority but also infringed on her right to free speech and to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

In April, the school district filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that its alleged missteps did not violate the Constitution. Under the law, administrators can intervene if the post creates a “substantial disruption at the school.” If Stratton had made the comments to a couple of friends while walking home from school, it would have been one thing, notes the district’s attorney, Timothy O’Connor. “But we have to consider how many friends from school were Riley’s ‘friends’ on Facebook,” he says. “Social media makes the situation more complicated.”

Even so, the court ruled in September 2012 that the case was “still in its infancy” and should go to trial.

Did school administrators violate Stratton’s constitutional rights? You be the judge.

The Verdict: In March 2014, the district settled, agreeing to pay Stratton $70,000 in damages. It also revised the school’s policies to make it clear to school officials what they can and can’t do, legally, when it comes to monitoring a student’s social media. O’Connor says the decision to settle was financial: “The fees to the district would have been astronomical.” Hilke suggests a different reason: “They were going to lose.” Both attorneys agree that it would have been a fascinating case to bring before a jury. “Schools are looking at laws for regulating student speech that existed before the digital age,” says O’Connor. “Social media is an interesting and relatively uncharted territory of the law.”

Was justice served?

Do students have a right to social media privacy?

Was a $70,000 settlement fair?

Sound off in the comments.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest