Good intentions don’t excuse bad decisions.
The Minnewaska School District learned that lesson last week.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota announced a $70,000 settlement Tuesday between the family of Riley Stratton, 15, and the Minnewaska School District.
As part of the settlement, the district agreed to change its polcies to better protect student’s privacy.
At issue were Facebook posts by Stratton when she was in sixth grade.
She was punished and humiliated for comments she made away from school.
At one point, a school counselor took her into a room, with a police officer present, and forced her to provide access to her Facebook account.
The counselor then searched the account, with Stratton present.
This search was precipitated by allegations that Stratton had an online conversation about sex with a boy. This allegedly occurred while she was at home, not at school.
It seems to me if school officials start punishing every boy or girl who ever discuss sex, the classrooms will soon be empty.
The issues here involve privacy and freedom of speech.
We must be careful when school districts, governments, or other entities start treading on civil liberties on the grounds something a person may have said might somehow have been considered inappropriate by someone else.
Changes in technology have changed the way we communicate, and this has created some challenges. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can simply throw people’s rights out the window whenever it is convenient to do so.
Wallace Hilke, an attorney for the ACLU in this case, said students’ use of social media is the family’s business, not the school’s, unless it involves a case of cyber-bullying or poses a substantial threat to school activities.
He noted that just because technology makes it easier for school officials to know what students say off campus doesn’t mean they can punish students for what they say away from school.
I graduated long before computers, smart phones, and social media became issues in school.
There is no doubt school officials would have taken exception to some of the comments I made when I was away from campus, and I heard many other people express unflattering views concerning the staff and the institution.
My classmates and I were not hauled into a closed room and forced to divulge comments we had made while away from school, and there is no reason students today should be held to a different standard.
This issue is about much more than students and schools.
What about employers?
I don’t suppose there are many people among the proletariat who haven’t, at some point in their careers, had occasion to go home, reach for a refreshing beverage, and complain about the state of affairs back at the old salt mine.
No matter how idyllic our jobs may be, we all have days when things are just a shade less than tickety-boo, and it makes us feel better to talk about it in front of a sympathetic audience.
What would happen if our employers, at the drop of a hat, could drag us into a room and demand that we fork over the credentials to our personal e-mail and social media accounts so they could check up on us?
I’m not speaking of my own situation, of course. I’m confident all of my co-workers love their jobs.
But, I have a sneaking suspicion that somewhere out there, with some employees and some employers, there may be communication that takes place away from the office that might somehow be construed as undesirable by the wage-paying half of the equation.
At the very least, this could result in disharmony down at the office.
That brings us to the government.
Based on recent revelations, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn the government is already monitoring our activities in far more ways than we have even thought to worry about.
Just last week, we heard that former president Jimmy Carter prefers to use snail mail because he thinks it likely his correspondence is being monitored by intelligence agencies.
If these agencies are bold enough to monitor former presidents, what’s to stop them from monitoring the activities of ordinary citizens who don’t have the power or resources to defend themselves?
What would happen if government goons could haul us in every time they suspected we had made unflattering comments about our elected representatives?
School officials forcing a sixth grade girl to reveal her personal Facebook page may not seem like a big deal to some people.
We should remember, however, that when we ignore or condone a loss of privacy or freedom for one person, we are weakening the freedom that all of us take for granted.
No matter how compelling or convincing an argument may be for why officials want to violate our civil liberties, we must remember that the arguments for preserving those liberties are much stronger.
If we fail to defend the rights we have, they may soon become the rights we had.