A Pennsylvania teen who stored intimate photos of herself on her cell phone, but never e-mailed or sent them via MMS, and shared them only with her longtime boyfriend, has settled her federal privacy case against high school officials in the Tunkhannock Area School District. Those officials searched the student's cell phone without a warrant, punished her for the topless pictures of herself store on the device, and finally referred her case to the DA's office for criminal prosecution.
Seizing the phone itself was not an issue: in January 2009 the student, identified only as N.N. in court documents for privacy reasons, was preparing to answer her cell phone on school grounds, which was a violation of the district policy. A teacher seized the phone, and later N.N. said, the principal confronted her with several images of her breasts found on the phone.
District policy requires a 3-day suspension for "sexting" or otherwise circulating inappropriate images. If not for that, N.N. would have only received a 90-minute in-school detention. Under the terms of the settlement, the school acknowledged no wrongdoing, but agreed to pay N.N. and her attorneys $33,000.
The ACLU's statement on the settlement says the following:
The student, identified only as N.N. in court papers to protect her privacy, was pleased that this part of the case had settled: "I hope this settlement will lead school officials in the future to consider whether they have valid grounds to search students' private text messages, emails and photos." [...]N.N. is now 19 years old. While her suit against the district were settled, N.N.'s claims against the District Attorney's Office were not, and will proceed, the ACLU said, through litigation. The federal complaint was filed by the ACLU on her behalf.
The photographs, which were not visible on the screen and required multiple steps to locate, were taken on the device's built-in camera and were never circulated to other students in the school. N.N. appeared fully covered in most of the photographs, although several showed her naked breasts and one indistinct image showed her standing upright while fully naked. The photographs were intended to be seen only by N.N.'s long-time boyfriend and herself.
The ACLU-PA hoped to use this case to help alert school officials across Pennsylvania to students' privacy rights in their cell phones. Very little case law exists discussing student-cell-phone searches. While the settlement forecloses a court ruling, the case has led the ACLU-PA to contact the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), which this week agreed to work with the ACLU towards crafting guidelines for teachers and school officials to help them better handle situations involving student cell phones and other electronic devices without unlawfully invading student privacy. Walczak noted that the goal was to prevent future violations of students' constitutional rights.