The days of photographic privacy are over. It is important for people of all ages, but especially teenagers who are most prone to rash behavior, to understand this and its implications. Chris Foresman’s November 2, 2009 article for ARS Technica, “Students suspended for racy slumber party pics, file lawsuit,” is the latest well-publicized case in point. Two sophomore girls at Churubusco High School in Churubusco, IN, , were punished at school as student athletes for photos taken at a sleepover with friends the previous summer. Chris wrote:
Obviously the two girls didn’t want everyone to see the pictures, so they posted them with the privacy controls set so only friends could see them. However, the photos were copied and eventually ended up on the desk of Austin Couch, the school’s principal.
Couch then punished the girls based on the school’s athletic code, which provides sanctions for student athletes that engage in behavior in or out of school that “creates a disruptive influence on the discipline, good order, moral or educational environment at Churubusco High School.” The two girls were barred from participating in any extracurricular activities, made to apologize for the photos to an all-male coaches board (which the complaint describes as “profoundly embarrassing”), and forced to undergo “humiliating” counseling.
Back in April 2009, a California court ruled photos posted to an online social networking website (MySpace in this situation) cannot be considered “private.” This latest case from Indiana will put this plea to the test again, but in slightly different circumstances since the posters DID share the images with privacy controls enabled.
I agree with John Palfrey’s point about online privacy on social networking sites in the article. Palfrey is a Harvard University law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Polfrey, quoted in the article,
…said that the idea of privacy on social networking websites is merely an illusion, even with added privacy controls. He also believes that schools have a right to regulate a student’s online activities, but the court will have to determine if the two girls in this case had their First Amendment right violated.” The fact that it took place in cyberspace instead of in a classroom doesn’t mean you don’t enforce the rule,” he told the AP.
I do not agree that schools should have an unrestricted right to “regulate a student’s online activities,” however, and will watch this case with interest. We definitely have situations in some of our Oklahoma schools where officials have stepped over the line and ignored the fact that students in schools still do possess constitutional rights, including limited free speech. In this Churubusco High School case, it appears the school officials took an overly broad interpretation of what constitutes a “disruption in the school environment.” Since the photos were taken the previous summer, made no reference to school, and were not brought into the school by the students in question, it seems highly doubtful the school administration can make a disruption case following the Tinker precedent. Of course, I’m also not a school lawyer, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Whatever the court rules in this case, the fact is that these photos have gone public and the girls in question are understandably embarrassed. This supports my primary point in this post: Photographic privacy is over. Whether or not you post a photo online or someone else does, it can end up on the desk of your school principal, your boss at work, or your mother. We may not like it, we can gripe about it, but this is the reality of the online, networked world in which we live.
In contexts like this, it certainly seems wonderful NOT to be growing up as a teen today. With all your friends armed with digital cameras and camcorders on their cell phones, how many different incidents from your youth could have landed you in the principal’s office if the school district took the same posture towards those photos as school officials in Fort Wayne, Indiana have in this case?
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