Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Several cases have come up in the past few years testing the boundaries of schools' authority to discipline students for on-line speech. The Supreme Court has yet to offer any direction in these cases, and inconsistencies abound among some lower courts. Fayette County Public Schools in Georgia avoided those thorny issues in a case that involved poking fun at a student, rather than punishing her. In a presentation on internet security and social media use that was open to the public, the district displayed a powerpoint slide that included a cartoon entitled “Once It's There—It's There to Stay.” The slide "featured a picture of [a current student] in a bikini standing next to a life-size cutout of singer Calvin 'Snoop Lion' Broadus (also known as 'Snoop Dogg'). [The district official] found this photo by browsing students' Facebook pages for pictures to use in his presentation. The picture was originally taken when [the student] accompanied a friend on her family's vacation, which [the student] contends did not involve sex or alcohol. The slide included [the student's] full name."
The student brought suit against the district, alleging violations of the 4th and 14th amendments, along with state law. The district court in Chaney v. Fayette Count Public School Dist., 2013 WL 5486829 (N.D. Georgia 2013), dismissed all the claims, largely on the rationale that the student had made the picture public. Leaving to the side whether the district was wise to use the photo, I think the court got it right. While students have legitimate objections regarding being punished for their on-line speech or having their privacy invaded, once they speak on-line and open their lives to the public, they likewise open themselves open to others commenting on it. After all, the listeners and viewers have free speech rights as well (subject to defamation and other analogous law).