You could see the Minnewaska Facebook case coming from seven years away

It’s not at all surprising that so many Americans are ignorant about their civil liberties given that many of the school districts in charge of teaching them can’t grasp them, either.

The latest case of a school run amok is the Minnewaska school district in central Minnesota, which has settled a complaint for $70,000 when a 15-year-old girl faced suspension and was “asked” (a police officer was present) to hand over her password so school and law enforcement officials could investigate another online conversation she had with a student, MPR’s Tim Post reports.

“You have a 12-year old kid, and you’ve got two adults in a small room — she’s locked in there,” Chuck Samuelson of the ACLU said. “Seriously? That’s wrong.”

Seriously, there’ll be plenty of people who don’t think so, and that’s the problem. Schools have been extending their authority into the home on non-school hours. The young woman who posted on Facebook that she hated a school monitor did so from her home and during non-school hours.

“A lot of schools, like the folks at Minnewaska, think that just because it’s easier to know what kids are saying off campus through social media somehow means the rules have changed, and you can punish them for what they say off campus,” said attorney Wallace Hilke, who helped lead Riley Stratton’s case, tells the Star Tribune.

Where would they get such an idea? From the politicians who take office while swearing an oath to uphold the Constitution.

Let’s hit the Wayback Machine. In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill on bullying that provided no guidance to school districts, requiring them to enact policies on bullying. It passed the Senate without a single moment of debate, and contained this provision:

The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.

What kind of policy? How would it enforce off-school activities? How does this infringe of free speech protections? The Legislature couldn’t be bothered with such things, to the consternation of school districts. They had to develop a policy: any policy would do, legislators told school officials who repeatedly asked them for a little guidance.

Predictably, this is where such poor legislation led.

“Some people think schools go too far and I get that,” the school superintendent in Minnewaska tells the Star Tribune. “But we want to make kids aware that their actions outside school can be detrimental.”

Only if a school district ignores an important fact: Opinions of individuals do not by themselves constitute threats; they constitute opinions. Only threats constitute threats.

“The school’s intent wasn’t to be mean or bully this student, but to really remedy someone getting off track a little,” he said.

The school district’s policies have been changed in the wake of this incident. “The new rules say electronic records and passwords created off-campus can only be searched if there’s a reasonable suspicion they will uncover violations of school rules,” according to the Star Tribune.

The down side of the settlement, in which the school district admits no fault, is that a court doesn’t get the chance to review what remains an important constitutional issue.

  • John O.

    Unfortunately, all too often with school districts it seems to be a case that opinions are fine–as long as they conform to whichever way the winds are blowing with the district at that time.

  • DavidG

    There’s a lot of middle ground, though, between a threat and the opinion that was expressed in this case. Especially with kids, a barrage of harassment and belittlement on-line, even when posted after school and off campus, is going to follow the targeted student into the class room. There needs to be some way for the schools to address that issue because of the impact on the target’s school environment.

    • Maybe they do have to do “something,” but that’s not a suitable alternative to the obvious free speech issues in this case. If I, as a 15 year old kid, can’t type “I hate Miss Horgan” on Facebook, then theoretically, I can’t stand in my driveway while playing some basketball with a friend and say “You know, I really hate Miss Horgan.”

      We want that, do we?

      • DavidG

        oh, I agree, and they should be able to say “I hate so-and-so, in my first period class.” I also believe, even with the suspicion of a threat, a search warrant should be required to demand access to any student’s non-school accounts.

        Maybe I read more into your comment than you intended, if so, sorry about that, but it seemed you were saying, absent a *threat*, the school has no business taking any action.

        And while students have a right to free speech, other students have a right to an education, so schools still have a responsibility to ensure a safe environment conducive to learning for all students. As much as we may wish otherwise, things occurring outside the school walls impact students’ school environment.

        As always, the trick is finding the right balance between competing rights.

  • Back at Farmington High School in 2005, we had a handful of seniors get in trouble because photos of them drinking beer showed up on Myspace. They felt like the school was punishing them for doing something outside of school grounds on their own time.

    • jon

      I graduated from Farmington High School in ’01 after several of my classmates died in a car (van) accident involving alcohol that year, I didn’t know them, though as a transfer into farmington I was probably one of only a half dozen students that could say that.

      I’ve heard my father speak of other classmates of mine that ended up with severe brain damage after accidents on four wheelers, involving alcohol.

      My own recollection of being in Farmington High School after coming from Public schools just south of Chicago was that the substance abuse problems in Farmington were far more prevalent than they were in Chicago, though I believed the drugs in Chicago were real, much of what I saw in Farmington were kids snorting baking soda, and smoking oregano… And in Chicago the cops, during anti-drug presentations, kept samples in a glass display case, instead of carrying a gallon zip-loc bag of marijuana around and passing it around the room.

      It isn’t an excuse for how the school in Farmington are acting, just an explanation of why things are the way they are. Also if you really want interesting stories about the Farmington School district look at how many lawsuits have been filed between the school district and the city.