AELE LAW LIBRARY OF CASE SUMMARIES:
Civil Liability
of Law Enforcement Agencies & Personnel


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Search and Seizure: School Premises

     In a case involving alleged "sexting" by a 17-year-old high school student (transmitting semi-nude photos of herself over a cellphone), a lawsuit against a school district on behalf of the student has been settled for a total of $33,000 to be paid to the girl and her attorneys with no admission of fault by the school district. The lawsuit contended that the school unlawfully searched the student's cellphone, punished her for storing semi-nude photos of herself on it, and subsequently referred her case to the local district attorney's office for possible criminal prosecution under child pornography laws. Fourth and First Amendment claims were asserted as well as common law privacy claims. The phone was initially seized because the student used it in the bathroom in violation of school rules, and the principal then searched the phone's stored messages, and discovered the photos, some of which showed the girl's naked breasts and one of which showed her fully naked. The photos were intended to be seen by only the student and her long-time boyfriend, and were not circulated to other students at the school. Claims in the lawsuit against the prosecutor's office, individual prosecutors, and a police detective are still pending and were not settled. N.N. v. Tunkhannock Area School District, #3:02-at-06999, (M.D. Pa. 2010). Various documents about the case and the settlement can be found on a website.
     Two parents sued a school district and various individual defendants, claiming that a visitor management policy implemented at a school violated their rights against unreasonable search and seizure, as well as rights of due process, privacy, and free speech. The policy, adopted after a sex offender gained access to a school in the district, and exposed himself to a child, required every visitor to district schools to show a state-issued photo ID card or be denied access to secure areas of the school where children might be present. The mother had been denied access to an area of her child's school because she refused to allow the school to either scan her driver's license or enter the information from it manually. Rejecting the parents' claims, a federal appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to show that they had a fundamental right to access the school's secure areas. The defendants were granted summary judgment and awarded costs. Meadows v. Lake Travis Independent School District, #09-50850, 2010 U.S. App. Lexis 18802 (Unpub. 5th Cir.).
     A student was subjected to a ten-day suspension from school after he wrote a slogan on the back of his hands supporting a former student who was accused of shooting a police officer. The student sued, seeking a judicial declaration that the school's actions violated his First Amendment rights, and the expungement of his suspension, as well as damages and attorneys' fees. A federal court rejected this claim. Even if the student acted in a peaceful and passive manner in displaying the slogan, his actions took place within a context of hostility and intimidation. School authorities could reasonably believe that his actions might contribute to disturbances already going on because of gang activity and the same slogan, even if no individual had felt threatened by his actions. Allowing the student to display the slogan might have increased the fear and tension already expressed by some students and parents over the slogan, so the school could properly prohibit its display. Brown v. Cabell County Board of Education, #3:09-0279, 2010 U.S. Dist. Lexis 53200 (S.D.W.Va.).
     In a case allegedly involving "sexting" by underage girls, the sending of nude or provocative sexually oriented photographs of oneself to others via cell phones or the Internet, a federal appeals court enjoined the prosecution of the plaintiffs, based on a claim that the threatened prosecution on felony child pornography charges was in unlawful retaliation for the plaintiffs' exercise of their First Amendment rights in refusing to attend an educational meeting on the subject in order to avoid prosecution. In at least one instance, a parent argued that the photograph sent by her daughter was not child pornography, since it involved no nudity, while a prosecutor took the position that it was child pornography because it was posed in a provocative manner. Coercing attendance to such educational meetings by threats of prosecution, the court stated, could violate parents' rights to parental autonomy under the Fourteenth Amendment (including deciding what lessons concerning morality and gender roles to give their children), and their children's First Amendment rights against compelled speech. Miller v. Mitchell, #09-2144, 2010 U.S. App. Lexis 5501 (3rd Cir.).

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