A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that a group of Mississippi high school administrators couldn’t be held liable for gaining access to a cheerleader’s Facebook account after she allegedly made threatening remarks to another student on the squad.
In 2007, when the action in question took place, there was “insufficient precedent” for the school officials to know they were violating a student’s First Amendment right to free speech, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The court unanimously overturned a lower court’s decision.
“We also must determine whether or not it ‘would be clear’ to a reasonable school official in the defendants’ position that punishing M.J. for the content of her Facebook messages would violate the First Amendment given the particular circumstances here,” the court wrote in their opinion, which did not use the students’ full names. “We agree with defendants that the answer is no.”
“At the time of the events in question, insufficient precedent existed to provide school officials with ‘fair warning’ that the defendants’ conduct violated the First Amendment,” the opinion states.
However, as The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog points out, “the court left it unclear whether it would have ruled differently had the school Facebook incident taken place more recently.”
From the appeals court opinion, here is the background of the case between the school and the cheerleader:
They allege that the violations occurred in September 2007 when Tommie Hill, a Pearl High School teacher and cheer squad sponsor, coercively requested M.J.’s Facebook log-in information and thereafter accessed M.J.’s Facebook messages to K.E., a senior student and a captain of the cheer squad. Hill took these actions based on reports she received from K.E. and other students that M.J. had cursed at and threatened K.E. on the bus ride returning from a cheer squad appearance at a local television station and that M.J. had continued to send K.E. threatening and imprecating Facebook messages afterwards. After inspecting the messages exchanged, Hill confirmed that the Facebook correspondence contained threatening and offensive language and concerned cheer squad activities. Accordingly, Hill suspended M.J. from cheer squad activities for two weeks and required K.E. to perform extra squad duties, including painting.
Litigation is still ongoing as to the potential liability of the school district, which was not covered in Tuesday’s ruling, a lawyer representing the school told Law Blog.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.