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Teacher Is Immune in Suit Over Search of Student's Facebook Account

A teacher who demanded access to a student's Facebook account to investigate threatening and offensive remarks is immune from a lawsuit because it was not clearly established that such a search would violate the student's rights, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The case stems from a 2007 feud between two Mississippi high school cheerleaders and raises an important question: whether school officials may demand social media account and password information from students.

But for now, the only issue decided by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, was whether the teacher and other school officials had qualified immunity in the lawsuit filed by the student whose Facebook account was searched.

"We conclude that school officials acting in 2007 did not have fair warning that they could not, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, access a student's social-networking account upon receiving information that the student had sent threatening online messages to another student, where those remarks concerned school activities and where the quarrel began at a school-related function," the appeals court said in a unanimous opinion.

The facts in the case are somewhat in dispute, but stem from a trip by the cheerleading squad of Pearl (Miss.) High School to a local TV station. On the bus ride home, a freshman cheerleader identified as M.J. exchanged words with the captain of the squad, a girl identified as  K.E. 

The next day, teacher and cheer squad sponsor Tommie Hill was informed that M.J. had cursed and threatened K.E. on the bus ride, and the teacher later learned that M.J. had taken the feud to her Facebook page. Hill spoke to all the cheerleaders about the dangers of communicating on Facebook, and she demanded that all provide their usernames and passwords so she could inspect their accounts.

M.J.'s Facebook messages to K.E. included statements such as, "i am so sick of you bossing me around," and "if i have a problem with you . . . i will confront you about it and im not gonna be nice about it."

The teacher considered these and other statements to be offensive and threatening, and she suspended M.J. from the cheer squad for two weeks, among other sanctions related to the team.

Pearl High School administrators backed the teacher. M.J.'s sued on her behalf, raising First and Fourth Amendment claims. A federal district court denied immunity to the teacher and school officials, and said there were enough disputed facts to allow the lawsuit to proceed.

The educators appealed the denial of immunity. In its Sept. 15 decision in Jackson v. Ladner, the 5th Circuit court said the facts of the case were unique and there was a "dearth of pertinent case law" about whether the school officials' actions violated M.J.'s First Amendment free speech right or Fourth Amendment right to be free an unreasonable search.

"We express no opinion regarding whether the defendants' conduct violated" either constitutional right, the court said.

The appeals panel sent the case back for further proceedings, though because the individuals school officials are the only defendants (in other words, the school district was not named as a defendant), that would be the end of M.J.'s case.

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