Indianapolis Two sophomore girls have sued their school district after they were punished for posting sexually suggestive photos on MySpace during their summer vacation.
The American Civil Liberties Union, in a federal lawsuit filed last week on behalf of the girls, argues that Churubusco High School violated the girls’ free speech rights when it banned them from extracurricular activities for a joke that didn’t involve the school. They say the district humiliated the girls by requiring them to apologize to an all-male coaches’ board and undergo counseling.
Some child advocates argue that schools should play a role in monitoring students’ behavior, especially when dealing with minors. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that students can be disciplined for activities that happen outside school, so long as the school can prove the activities were disruptive or posed a danger and that it was foreseeable the activities would find their way to campus.
But some legal experts say that in this digital era, schools must accept that students will engage in some questionable behavior in cyberspace and during off hours.
“From the standpoint of young people, there’s no real distinction between online life and offline life,” said John Palfrey, a Harvard University law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “It’s just life.”
In the Indiana case, the ACLU argues that the district and Churubusco Principal Austin Couch went too far in banning the two sophomores from fall sports, requiring them to apologize to the all-male coaches’ board and undergo counseling after the photographs were circulated at school.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne, names Couch, the high school and the district as defendants and seeks unspecified damages. No hearing has been scheduled.
Erik Weber, an attorney for the Smith-Green school district, said Couch was enforcing the northeast Indiana school’s athletic code, which allows the principal to bar from school activities any student-athlete whose behavior in or out of school “creates a disruptive influence on the discipline, good order, moral or educational environment at Churubusco High School.”
Martha McCarthy, who teaches educational law and policy at Indiana University, said courts have upheld such policies, but that the issue could come to a head as advances in technology bring more out-of-school behavior issues to light.
“I think the Supreme Court’s going to have to address this,” she said.
ACLU legal director Ken Falk insists the Churubusco case doesn’t warrant the punishment the district handed out.
The girls, identified only by their initials in the suit, took the photos during a sleepover with friends before school started this summer and posted them on their MySpace pages, setting the privacy controls so only those designated as friends could view them.
Weber declined to say how the photos reached Couch, but the suit contends that someone copied the pictures and shared them with school officials, and they eventually were given to the principal.