October 27, 2014

Policy Violates Students' First and Fourth Amendment Rights

October 27, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

NASHVILLE – In an effort to protect Williamson County public school students' right to free speech and privacy, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Electronic Frontier Foundation today sent a letter to Williamson County school board members urging them to immediately revise a policy regulating use of technology and social media. The letter, sent on behalf of a Williamson County family, asserts that the district's policies infringe on students' constitutional rights to free speech and privacy.

The district's policy raised immediate concerns for Williamson County father Daniel Pomerantz, who worried that his child's constitutional rights were being violated. After he refused to sign the policy on his daughter's behalf, she was denied the opportunity to participate in classroom activities using the school's computers. Pomerantz ultimately signed the policy under protest, stopping the exclusion of his daughter from meaningful educational experiences. However, his concerns remained and he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) for assistance.

"The Supreme Court has long held that students do not shed their right to free speech at the schoolhouse gate. By restricting non-disruptive, off-campus student speech across the board, this policy clearly violates students' First Amendment rights," said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. "We are demanding that the school board change its policy immediately."

According to the letter, the social media portion of the policy is overly broad, applying to "virtually all online communication by [Williamson County Schools] students (including adults), regardless of whether the speech occurs on or off campus." Students are also required to get permission from a teacher before posting any photos of other Williamson County students or employees, even if the images are taken outside of school. The policy, the letter states, is also impermissibly vague in its prohibition of any social media speech that is "inappropriate" or "unauthorized."

In addition, the letter asserts that the portions of the policy regulating technology brought to school from home—such as smartphones, tablets or laptops—subject all "students to suspicionless—and limitless—searches of their…devices for essentially any purpose and without any rationale that justifies such a considerable intrusion…all data and communications of [school] network users are [also] subject to suspicionless monitoring."

"Smartphones and tablets contain vast amounts of very personal data about students and their families. This highly-intrusive policy sets no limits on the types of data that can be extracted from students' devices nor on how it can be used," said Nate Cardozo, EFF staff attorney. "The district's policy flies in the face of students' right to privacy and must be changed."

"My daughter shouldn't have to trade away her rights to free speech and privacy just to get a quality education," Pomerantz stated. "That's the wrong lesson for schools to be teaching our children."

The letter urges the school board to immediately modify the policy to ensure that students' constitutional rights are protected.

In addition to Cardozo and Castelli, the letter to the school board was sent by Jamie Williams, EFF legal fellow.

A copy of the letter sent today is available here.

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