'STUDENTS’ RIGHTS: Students and Technology' Pamphlet
Frequently asked questions surrounding students' rights in relation to technology and social media
Most young people visit popular social media sites like Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter every day. It goes without saying that these activities tend to involve a lot of sharing of personal information over the Internet. Recently there have been questions surrounding the ways in which a public school can access this information, or even if they can discipline you for it. This brochure will try to answer some of the frequently asked questions surrounding social media and your right to privacy.
This brochure applies to K-12 public school students in the state of Rhode Island. The rules for colleges or private schools will differ. It is also important to note that school district policies on these issues – such as when and how long a school can confiscate a student’s cell phone if it has been misused – vary greatly from school to school. For this reason, it is very important that you look at your individual school’s policies, which should be located in your student handbook.
This brochure is only a general outline of the law. Not every issue of students’ technology rights is covered, and this publication should not be taken as specific legal advice. If you have additional questions or need legal assistance, you should speak with an attorney or contact the ACLU.
- Can I get in trouble at school for something I text, email or post online while I am there?
- Can my school force me to log onto my Facebook, email, or other personal account in order to view my activity?
- Can my school take my cell phone? If school officials confiscate my cell phone, are they allowed to search it?
In general, your school cannot censor items that you post during off-school hours using a personal email address or account, and on a private computer with a private internet connection. That includes the right for you to share information on a blog, social networking site, or personal email that is critical of the school or school officials. However, some courts have ruled that students can be disciplined for off-campus online conduct if it potentially creates a substantial and material disruption to the school environment. Here in Rhode Island, for example, the Department of Education ruled that a student could be disciplined for writing a sexually-explicit song about a teacher and posting it online when copies of the song were then brought to school by other students.
As that example illustrates, your school can view anything you post on social networking sites. Even if your social networking pages are set to private, someone else can show your comments and pictures to school officials or others from their account, copy your content paste it into an e-mail or onto another public website, or print out what is on their computer screen and pass it around at school.
If your online postings demonstrate that you broke school rules, the school can discipline you. For example, you could get in trouble if you post a video of yourself and friends smoking on school property. And if you post about doing something illegal, law enforcement may use it as evidence against you. If you have questions about being disciplined for online activity outside of school, you should contact the ACLU.
If you go to a public school, you maintain your constitutional right to free speech. You have the right to express your opinions and beliefs, even if they are controversial, as long as you do so in a way that doesn’t disrupt class or other school-related activities.
However, most schools have Internet usage and cell phone policies governing the school day. If you are using a school computer or email account, school officials can monitor your activity. Any online activity using school computers, internet access, or email accounts that violates school policies, creates a disruptive learning environment, or violates others’ rights could result in disciplinary action. Also, state law generally prohibits students from accessing social networking sites while at school. Many schools also have limits on the use of cell phones during the school day. Check your school’s policy to see what the rules are.
Can my school force me to log onto my Facebook, email, or other personal account in order to view my activity?
In most cases, your school cannot force you to log into your personal accounts in order to view your activity. However, if school officials have reasonable suspicion that you’ve done something against the law that affects school activity, they may contact the police. Under those circumstances, the police might be able to get a warrant and work together with your school to access your personal Facebook or email accounts.
Can my school take my cell phone? If school officials confiscate my cell phone, are they allowed to search it?
If you violated school policy governing cell phone usage during school hours, then your school can probably confiscate your phone. Check your student handbook to see what the policy is regarding cell phone confiscation. In most cases, however, the school is not allowed to access the personal information on your phone even if they confiscate it. If they take your phone for a particular reason – for example, another student claims you sent them an inappropriate text message during the school day – they may be allowed to check for that particular message, but they should not be checking additional information on the phone, such as your contact list, photos, etc.
If a school official asks for permission to search your phone, you do not have to agree or give your permission. Like your personal email and Facebook accounts, the police would generally need a warrant to search your cell phone.
It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 in Rhode Island to engage in “sexting.” That term is defined in Rhode Island law as the transmission, via cell phone or similar devices, of certain nude images of yourself – specifically, graphic photos of your genitals or pubic area.
If the act of sexting causes a disruption to your school’s learning environment, the school can discipline you. Rhode Island law states that “sexting” constitutes a status offense – which means you can be sent to family court to face a judge, but you will not face criminal penalties such as a prison sentence. However, because of the way the law was written, it technically allows minors who engage in sexting to be charged with child pornography instead. The ACLU believes such a charge could be legally challenged.
Bullying is a very serious problem. No student has the right to say things, online or elsewhere, that put you in reasonable fear of harm to yourself, your siblings or even your belongings. However, the ACLU believes that the state law governing bullying is so broadly worded that it could unfairly be used to punish a student’s right to freedom of speech.
That is because Rhode Island law defines bullying (and cyber bullying) to include any communication by a student that, among other things, causes another student “emotional harm,” even if there was no intent to cause harm. The law also allows schools to punish students for “bullying” happening inside and outside of school, and even encourages police intervention in many cases.
So if you use the internet or social networking websites to threaten or spread lies about other students or teachers, you could face discipline under your school’s anti-bullying policy. In some instances, however, punishment for cyber bullying may violate your constitutional rights.
Read your school’s anti-bullying policy. If you believe you are unfairly disciplined under it for something you said or posted, you should contact the ACLU.
For over ninety years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been working in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the rights and liberties guaranteed to everyone in this country by the U.S. Constitution and laws.
Rhode Island residents who believe their rights have been violated are encouraged to report these concerns to:
ACLU of Rhode Island
128 Dorrance Street, Suite 220
Providence, RI 02903
P: (401) 831-7171
F: (401) 831-7175