12-year-old sues school district over Facebook profile search

A Minnesota school district is sued by a 12-year-old girl who claims that the school pressured her to give up her Facebook password. But, wait, the minimum age on Facebook is 13.

Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It seems that everyone in authority wants to get into your virtual underbelly.

Employers in Maryland seem to think they have the right to search potential hires' Facebook profiles.

And now the Minnewaska school district in Minnesota stands accused of coercing a 12-year-old girl into giving up her Facebook and e-mail passwords, so that a school could spy with their little eye.

CNN reports that she was also twice punished for things she wrote on Facebook.

A lawsuit on behalf of the girl--brought in conjunction with the ACLU--declares that her First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

The girl--referred to in the court papers as R.S.--apparently felt that her hall monitor was mean to her and therefore described her as "mean" on her Facebook profile. She claims that no school equipment or property were used to make her postings.

It is unclear how a screenshot of her postings got back to the school principal, but it seems they did. Even one in which she wanted to know--using strong language--who had betrayed her.

It is alleged that the password-demanding incident occurred when the parents of another student objected to a Facebook post in which sex was discussed.

What seems even more pulsating is that the court papers state that she was called to a meeting at which a school counselor and the deputy sheriff were present.

It was at this meeting that she was allegedly "interrogated" and surrendered the passwords to her Facebook and e-mail accounts.

And, no, her mother had allegedly not consented to the search.

The court papers. Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The school district told CNN: "The district is confident that once all facts come to light, the district's conduct will be found to be reasonable and appropriate."

There are always more facts than appear in court papers. Who knows what all the facts ultimately were, for example, when a Philadelphia school district was sued by the parents of a 15-year-old for allegedly viewing him at home via remote Webcam on his school-issued laptop?

What did happen is that a $610,000 settlement was reached.

Yet one fact might fascinate some in this peculiar conundrum in which--if the accusations prove true--the school district behaved uncomfortably: You have to be 13 to have a Facebook account.

Facebook's rules are very clear on this. Facebook promises to delete the accounts of all under-13s. (There does seem to be a bizarre exception for babies.)

Moreover, if a child is underage, it's not as if Facebook will simply give his or her parents the child's password and/or posts if they ask for them.

Facebook's Help Center for parents states: "Applicable laws may give parents the right to access personal information their under-13-year-old child has provided before Facebook follows its policy of promptly deleting such accounts."

In such a case, parents have to offer notarized proof that they are the child's legal guardians. In one case, a parent has sued Facebook for allowing a 12-year-old to have an account on which she allegedly posted naughty pictures.

The ACLU declared in a statement: "Students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the school house gate. The Supreme Court ruled on that in the 1970s, yet schools like Minnewaska seem to have no regard for the standard."

Will the school publicly reveal its own version of the facts? Will its claim it was acting "in loco parentis"? Or will its lawyers already be privately mulling the concept of a settlement?

 

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