R.S. v. Minnewaska Area Sch. Dist., No. 12-588 (D. Minn. Sept. 6, 2012)
Abstract: A federal district court in Minnesota has denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, ruling that a middle school student has stated a valid claim for violation of her First Amendment free speech rights based on school officials disciplining the students for off-campus postings made on her Facebook page. The court also denied school officials’ assertion that they were entitled to qualified immunity from the First Amendment claim at this early stage of the litigation.
The court also concluded that the student had stated a valid claim for violation of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches based on school officials requiring her to provide passwords to her Facebook and personal email accounts. Although the district court’s opinion addressed a number of issues raised by her federal and state law claims, this summary focuses on the student’s First and Fourth Amendment claims, and the individual defendants’ claims to a qualified immunity defense.
Facts/Issues: R.S., a student at Minnewaska Area Middle School (MAMS), was disciplined for two postings she made on her Facebook wall. One posting expressed her dislike for a school employee, while the other “expressed salty curiosity about who had ‘told on her.’” Facebook’s website is inaccessible from school computers, and R.S. posted the messages from home, outside of school hours.
However, MAMS Principal Pat Falk learned of the posting when one of R.S.’ classmates recorded the message. Falk required R.S. to apologize to the employee and serve detention. R.S. then posted a message stating: “I want to know who the f%$# [sic] told on me.” She received a one-day in-school suspension and was also prohibited from attending a class ski trip for that posting. Her disciplinary record indicated she was punished for “insubordination” and “dangerous, harmful, and nuisance substances and articles.”
R.S.’ Facebook page came to MAMS officials’ attention again when the guardian of a male student complained that the boy was communicating with R.S. about sexual topics via the Internet. R.S. was pulled out of class by a school counselor, who questioned her about the allegation. R.S. admitted to having Internet conversations of a sexual nature. R.S. was pulled out of class a second time that same day and taken to the office of the local law enforcement officer assigned to the school.
Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Mitchell, the counselor, and a third unknown school employee questioned R.S. about her Internet conversations. R.S. alleged that the officials demanded she provide them with her email and Facebook usernames and passwords under threat of detention. The officials viewed her public Facebook postings and her private messages. However, R.S. was uncertain that they accessed and viewed her email account. At no point did officials ask for R.S.’ permission to search through her private correspondence.
Although R.S. was not disciplined, only after the search took place did the counselor contact R.S.’ mother, S.S., leaving a voice mail relaying the day’s events. S.S. filed suit in federal district court on behalf of R.S. against Minnewaska Area School District (MASD) and a number of MAMS officials, laying out several federal and state law claims. This case summary will focus on just the First Amendment free speech claim and the Fourth Amendment unlawful search claim, and several state law claims.
Ruling/Rationale: The district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that the student had alleged sufficient facts for her claims of violations of her First and Fourth Amendment rights to proceed.
First Amendment Free Speech
Addressing the issue of whether the defendants violated R.S.’ free speech rights, the court stated that “out-of-school statements by students … are protected under the First Amendment and not punishable by school authorities unless they are true threats or are reasonably calculated to reach the school environment and are so egregious as to pose a serious safety risk or other substantial disruption in that environment.”
The court concluded R.S.’ postings were certainly not threats, much less true threats. While conceding her statements may have been reasonably calculated to reach the school environment, the court pointed out that the defendants had to show that they could reasonably forecast substantial disruption to the school environment. However, the court found that the content of the statements fell far short of statements made by students in cases in which courts have upheld intervention by school authorities. It concluded, based on the facts alleged, that “a reasonable reader could not consider her statements likely to cause a substantial disruption to the school environment.”
Regarding the individual defendants’ argument that they were entitled to qualified immunity, the court determined that the protected status of off-campus online speech was clearly established at the time they disciplined R.S. Citing D.J.M. v. Hannibal Public School District # 60, 647 F.3d 754 (8th Cir. 2011), the district court stated that D.J.M. “explained the contours of a narrow exception to the general rule – an exception which applies to true threats or egregious statements likely to make their way to school and cause a substantial disruption to the school environment.”
The court also referred to the twin Third Circuit decisions, Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 205 (3d Cir. 2011) (en banc) and J.S. v. Blue Mountain Sch. Dist., 650 F.3d 915 (3d Cir. 2011) (en banc), pointing out that courts have applied the exception “only to the most violent and threatening forms of speech and consistently declining to expand it to extremely offensive but nonviolent out-of-school speech.” The court also noted that a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases have distinguished between regulation of on-campus and off-campus speech.
Fourth Amendment Unreasonable Search
The court noted that searches in a school setting are governed by principles established in New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 336-37 (1985). From T.L.O., in order to determine whether a search is reasonable, the Court must “consider first the ‘scope of the legitimate expectation of privacy at issue,’ then the ‘character of the intrusion that is complained of,’ and finally the ‘nature and immediacy of the governmental concern at issue’ and the efficacy of the means employed for dealing with it.”
The court pointed out that a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy depends in large part on the ability to exclude others from the place searched. The court found that it is well-settled law that individuals enjoy protection from intrusions on their private electronic communications, such as emails.
As a result, the court agreed “that one cannot distinguish a password-protected private Facebook message from other forms of private electronic correspondence.” It found that R.S.’ allegations show that “at least some of the information and messages accessed by the school officials were in R.S.’ exclusive possession, protected by her Facebook password.” It, therefore, concluded that R.S. had a reasonable expectation of privacy to her Facebook information and messages. Having established that R.S. had sufficiently alleged a reasonable expectation of privacy, the court then analyzed the nature of the search.
Based of the facts as alleged, i.e., R.S. admitted to conversations of a sexual nature that broke no laws or school policies, the court found there was “no indication at this stage that they tailored their search in any way,” and it was difficult to discern “what, if any, legitimate interest the school officials had for perusing R.S.’ private communications.” The court, therefore, concluded that R.S. had “alleged facts sufficient to show that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy at least with respect to her private Facebook messages and that the school officials had no legitimate interest in searching them against her will.”
The court then turned to the defendants’ claim that they were entitled to qualified immunity from R.S.’ Fourth Amendment claim. The court found that a “student’s right to be free from an unreasonable search – that is, a search without a justifying and legitimate government interest – of private correspondence in school is clearly established.” Noting the early stage of the litigation, it denied the defendants’ motion for qualified immunity.
R.S. v. Minnewaska Area Sch. Dist., No. 12-588 (D. Minn. Sept. 6, 2012)
[Editor's Note: In June 2012, Legal Clips summarized an Associated Press (AP) article on NECN.com, which reported that in response to the federal lawsuit filed by three students expelled after commenting on Facebook about wanting to kill classmates, Griffith Public Schools (GPS) disputed that the comments were jokes and or that GPS had violated the students' free speech rights. Instead, GPS charged the online postings “and this disturbing conversation posed a ‘true threat’ and two of the threatened students were so fearful of the threats that they missed classes and school.”
In March 2012, Legal Clips summarized a Mississippi federal district court decision in Bell v. Itawamba Cnty. Sch. Bd., which held that school officials did not violate a student’s free speech when they disciplined him for posting a “rap” song he composed and performed off-campus, and posted on his Facebook page. The court concluded that under Tinker, school officials can regulate off-campus speech/expression that causes a material or substantial disruption at school.
In January 2012, Legal Clips summarized articles from several national media outlets, which reported on the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in three student Internet speech cases, J.S. v. Blue Mountain Sch. Dist. (combined with Layshock v. Hermitage Sch. Dist.) and Kowalksi v. Berkeley Count Sch. In each of these cases, a student had used offensive language online, after school hours, to berate school administrators or a fellow student, for which the student was disciplined by school officials.
In August 2011, Legal Clips summarized the Eighth Circuit panel decision in D.J.M. (referenced in the above case summary), which held that a school district that suspended a student for off-campus instant message communications with a classmate did not violate the student’s free speech rights because the student’s speech constituted unprotected true threats. The panel also concluded that the school district was justified in disciplining the student under the substantial disruption standard established in Tinker, based on Tinker’s language that school officials may discipline students for speech that occurs ”in class or out of it,” which “might reasonably [lead] school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.”]