Indiana high School students sue after school imposed penalties for posting racy photos on internet

Two sophomores from an Indiana high school were barred from afterschool sports for the 2009-2010 school year when the administration objected to sexually provocative images of themselves the girls posted on MySpace. The American Civil Liberties Union is filing a suit against the school, arguing that the posting was not disruptive and therefore violated the students’ First Amendment rights. The students apologized and have been reinstated for the fall sports season. Tech Herald contributor Steve Ragan says that the punishment was excessive, but certainly the girls learned an important lesson about protecting their privacy in the electronic era. -DB

The Tech Herald
November 2, 2009
By Steve Ragan

Two girls, both sophomores at an Indiana high school, were blocked from participating in afterschool sports programs based on images posted to the social networking portal MySpace. The pictures, considered racy, ended up in the hands of the girls’ coach and principal who banned them from extracurricular activities, made them personally apologize to an all male coaches board, and forced them to attend counseling.

The images, which depicted the girls pretending to kiss a novelty phallus lollipop, as well as images of the teens in lingerie with dollar bills stuck inside, were all taken during a summer sleepover. They were considered a joke by everyone who appeared in them, and were then uploaded by the two girls – identified in court documents as T.V. and M.K. – to MySpace, so they could be shared with those who were listed as friends. Someone managed to get these images and copies of them ended up in the hands of school officials. The officials promptly suspended the girls from participation in all extracurricular activities for the 2009-2010 school year.

According to the suit filed by the ACLU on the girls’ behalf, not only was the school out of line for their actions, the policy used to back the suspension violates the First Amendment.

The policy, which the Smith-Green Community School Corporation stood behind when they informed one girl’s parents that the suspension would stand says, “It shall be recognized that the Principal, by the administrative authority vested in him/her by the Smith-Green Community School Corporation, may exclude any student-athlete from representing Churubusco High School if his/her conduct in or out of school reflects discredit upon Churubusco High School or the IHSAA or creates a disruptive influence on the discipline, good order, moral, or educational environment at Churubusco High School”

The ACLU points out that at no time did the images identify the girls as students of Churubusco High School. Moreover, they did not cause a disruption in the school or affect the school in any way. Because of this, it “…violated the First Amendment and to the extent that the defendants have a policy allowing such punishment the policy is unconstitutional as violating the First Amendment as applied to such activity which is not disruptive.”

However, the suspension is nothing compared to the humiliation of the pictures getting out. What the girls did was stupid. Most will agree to this point, but the fact that on top of the suspensions the girls had to apologize to an all male Athletic Board and attend three counseling sessions only compounded their angst.

The apology and the counseling were the result of an appeal by one of the girl’s parents. They were told that if they attended the counseling sessions and made the apology, the punishment could be lessened. Because of the humiliating experience, the girls have only missed 25-percent of their sports season.

“Both plaintiffs are extremely reluctant to express themselves by posting pictures on their MySpace pages and are generally afraid to share pictures, e-mails, or other communications with their friends because of fear that they will lead to further punishment, even though they do not interfere with the school in any way,” the ACLU filing states.

The girls are now completely humiliated because of everything that has happened. What the girls did was, again, dumb. However, kids will always make dumb decisions, it is part of growing up.

The punishment in this case did not fit the crime. Since there was nothing to identify the school itself, then the policy used to enforce the punishment shouldn’t apply. At the same time, some of the comments online about this story, and from locals here in Indianapolis, ask about the privacy or expectation of privacy the girls had, and why no one was being punished for that.

There is no word on who it was that copied the images, if they were a “friend” on MySpace, then that explains their access. If they were not, then the privacy settings on MySpace were incorrectly used, or they failed. Still, at the end of the day, no one should expect privacy online. If you post a picture to the Internet, it’s there forever. This circles back to the notion that what the girls did was a dumb idea.

Yet, they were grossly over punished. Now both teens serve as another example of how kids will make a mistake, and how adults will overreact. The school is there to educate, not police. The responsibility for punishment should have landed squarely on the parent’s shoulders. Exactly where it belongs.

How many of you who lived in the 70’s or 80’s can honestly say that you or someone you know wouldn’t have made similar mistakes if MySpace was around back then and you had a 5-megapixel camera handy at all times?

What are your thoughts? Was the school correct, and did the punishment fit the crime?

Copyright 2009 The Tech, WOTR Limited