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Pa. School District Pays $33,000 to Settle Cell Phone Search Lawsuit

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September 17, 2010

On Wednesday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of a former high school student, known as “N.N.,” whose cell phone was confiscated and unconstitutionally searched by school officials.

The lawsuit charged (PDF) that school officials in Tunkhannock Area School District violated N.N.’s First and Fourth Amendment rights by searching her phone after confiscating it. A teacher had seized the device after the student was seen using it before classes started, but apparently after school rules allowed students to make calls. While seizing the phone for violating school-use policies was okay, what happened next was not.

The principal began pressing buttons on the cell phone to access the photo album on N.N’s phone. The principal then viewed photos that the girl had taken the night before of herself naked. N.N. took these photos to share with her long-time boyfriend, who had graduated, and did not send (or “sext”) the photos to anyone else.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in May charging the school district with violating the girl’s First and 14th Amendment rights. In Wednesday’s agreement, the school district denied any liability or wrongdoing, but agreed to pay N.N. and her attorneys $33,000 to settle the case. This settlement resolves the claims against the school district.

But the case will continue against the county district attorney’s office and the former district attorney, George Skumanick. After the principal punished N.N. he referred the case to then-D.A. Skumanick for criminal prosecution. Skumanick threatened to bring felony child pornography charges against N.N. unless she consented to attend a five-week “re-education program.” N.N. opted to avoid a possible 10-year-prison sentence by taking the program, which included topics like “what it means to be a girl in today’s society” and “non-traditional societal and job roles.” It also required her to write an essay explaining why her actions were wrong (even if she didn’t think they were).

The threatened prosecution was the subject of another ACLU-PA lawsuit against Skumanick, which was brought on behalf of three of N.N.’s classmates, who were also threatened with felony child pornography charges unless they took his “re-education” course. Those girls opted to fight Skumanick’s threat. One photo showed two girls from the waist up in their bras, and the second photo showed another girl topless. None of the girls was involved in distributing the photos. In March, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) that the district attorney’s office had no grounds to threaten child-pornography charges and thus the D.A.’s actions to force the girls to take the course, and to force their parents to let them take the course, was unconstitutional. But N.N. was not part of that suit.

N.N. fought back with her own lawsuit — the one just settled on Wednesday. When the case was filed in May, N.N. said in a statement: “I was absolutely horrified and humiliated to learn that school officials, men in the DA’s office and police had seen naked pictures of me.” Even her parents had not seen her naked in many years and now strange men were seeing her. Mortifying.

The ACLU’s civil liberties concern is that too many school principals and officials fail to recognize the highly private and sensitive information that many people — and especially young people — store on their cell phones. As ACLU-PA Legal Director Witold Walczak said when the suit was filed, “School administrators have no more right to look through personal photographs stored on a student’s cell phone then they have the right to rummage through her purse, read her diary and mail, or view her family photo album.”

While the case was settled before a judge could issue an opinion establishing the law, the ACLU hopes that the hefty settlement will alert school officials to the important privacy rights at stake and prompt them to think before they start clicking through students’ cell phones.

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