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Judge won't dismiss lawsuit accusing Minnesota school of demanding sixth-grader's Facebook password

September 10, 2012

MINNESOTA - A Minnesota student’s lawsuit against her middle school over punishment she was given for Facebook posts will continue after a judge denied the school district’s motion to dismiss.

Judge Michael Davis’ Thursday decision lets the student, identified in court documents as R.S., continue with her complaint arguing that the school violated her First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

In the lawsuit, the student accuses the school of punishing her for posts she made on Facebook from her home computer and for demanding her Facebook password.

The judge dismissed some of the student’s complaints, saying she can’t argue that the school conspired to deprive her of her rights or that the school had inflicted intentional emotional distress under Minnesota law.

“Certainly when you file a lawsuit you don’t want to lose any of the claims you have included in the complaint but in this case the court has let the vast majority of the case move forward,” said Teresa Nelson, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the student.

Nelson said she was pleased with the judge’s decision overall.

“Really, we want to see justice for R.S., and we’re hopeful that will happen if we are allowed to move forward in the case,” Nelson said.

The Minnewaska Superintendent Gregory Ohl declined to comment. When the lawsuit was filed in March, he told the Student Press Law Center that “we’re sure our folks responded reasonably for the situation.”

The student said she was punished twice during the 2010-11 school year for Facebook posts she made at home on her own computer.

The girl first posted that she hated a hall monitor who was “mean” to her, according to the court documents. After a Facebook screenshot of the student’s post was given to Principal Pat Falk, the school’s principal, the girl was given detention, forced to apologize to the hall monitor and received a note in her disciplinary record that said she had been “rude/discourteous.”

The student was punished again after she wrote another post: “I want to know who the f %$# told on me,” according to the lawsuit. For this, the girl was given one day of in-school suspension and prohibited from attending a class ski trip.

A third incident occurred when a parent called the school complaining that her son and the girl had been involved in a Facebook chat on his computer about sex. When questioned by a school counselor, the girl admitted the conversation occurred.

The girl was called out of class a second time later that day and met with the counselor, a deputy sheriff’s officer assigned to the school and a third unknown school employee. The student says she was forced to give the three her email address and password as well as her Facebook password. The three searched her Facebook account for about 15 minutes.

“From our perspective we can think of no legitimate pedagogical or educational or any other reason really to have searched her Facebook page based on middle school students talking about sex,” Nelson said.

“I think this case is the tip of the iceberg,” Nelson said. “With the advent of electronic media I think you have a lot of schools wondering what they can do and overstepping their bounds.”

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.

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© 2012 Student Press Law Center

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