Facebook & Free Speech

Facebook & Free Speech

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., September 2009

For many of us, the idea that a high school coach could legally request a student's personal password for Facebook and then punish her for her private online exchanges is absurd. And yet, taking high school junior Mandi Jackson's assertions as true, this is exactly what happened at Pearl High School in Mississippi—and that's why she's suing the school district for violating her right to privacy and freedom of speech.

Mandi contends that a cheerleading coach asked the squad to provide their Facebook passwords; while some cheerleaders immediately deleted their accounts, Jackson willingly provided her account password only to be "publicly reprimanded, punished and humiliated" according to the complaint.

In Mandi's personal Facebook message box, the coach allegedly found a series of messages that contained vulgar language and had been sent between Mandi and a peer. The coach then shared these messages with other teachers and coaches, as well as the principal and superintendent, resulting in Mandi's banishment from certain school activities and events, including those for which she had already paid fees.

"I would have been completely fine with the school officials looking at my public [profile on] Facebook, but I think they went too far with getting my password and looking at my personal messages between me and my peers," Jackson said. "They were conversations between me and my friends, so I shouldn't have gotten in trouble for them."

Was This a Violation of Privacy and Freedom of Speech Rights?

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the watershed case regarding students' rights in public schools, the Supreme Court famously announced, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Given that Jackson's Facebook communications took place off-campus (the social media site is blocked from school computers) and that the matter discussed in the messages didn't apparently involve any threats of violence or anything having to do with the school, it's hard to imagine how the school can even attempt to justify its intrusion into and punishment for Jackson's personal messages.

From Jackson's complaint, it seems that the school district expects its students to shed their rights not only at the schoolhouse gate, but at home, at the mall, or wherever else they might use the Internet. The school district has not commented publicly on the lawsuit.

Find more information on this developing case at the Student Press Law Center.