UPDATE! High School Takes Its Cue From George Orwell’s “1984”

In the Philadelphia suburb, Lower Merion Township, students are issued laptops by the school district.  Unfortunately, as some Lower Merion high school students recently discovered, their laptops came with an unwanted “spycam” feature courtesy of their school district.

According to a class action lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Lower Merion School District issued laptops to its high school students with webcams installed.  Unbeknownst to the students, however, the high school administration retained the ability to remotely activate the webcam at any time to, essentially, spy on the students and anyone else that might be within view of the webcam.  The plaintiffs and their families alleged that they first became aware of the high school’s ability to activate the webcams and spy on them when one student was brought before the school’s vice principal for “engag[ing] in improper behavior in his home, citing a webcam photo as evidence.

As an article in Boingboing.com noted:

“Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years.”

It is unclear what “improper behavior” the student committed.  However, schools in Pennsylvania, in particular, appear highly concerned about student activity in cyberspace.  Recently, I wrote about the controversial practice of “sexting” in “Is Sexting Child Porn Or Protected Speech?”  That article discussed the case of Miller v. Skumanick, which involved another Pennsylvania school’s attempt to combat “sexting.”  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue a decision soon in that case.  For now, the District Court’s opinion is in the Box for you to download.

The issue of “sexting” is not limited to Pennsylvania.  Recently, a Florida youth was arrested on charges of child pornography for forwarding sexually explicit images a girl had given him to his friends.  You can link to an article discussing the Florida case here.

The Lower Merion case is not the first case attempting to punish a student for “off campus” Internet behavior.  In fact, the 3rd Circuit has created what one lawyer called a “state of chaos” by issuing two seemingly-conflicting opinions, each involving fake profiles set up by students on Myspace.  You can read about these cases in a Findlaw article here.

However, the Lower Merion case may well be the first case where a school covertly spied on its own students by use of a webcam.  As the case develops, I will report more here.  In the meantime, you can download a copy of the complaint filed against the Lower Merion School District, which I saved under “SchoolSpycamCase” in the Box.

Update:  School Admits To Covertly Spying On Its Students Some 42 Times

If you were like me, as you were reading my previous post on the controversy engulfing Lower Merion Township as a result of its high school’s spycam-campaign, you might have found yourself asking, “Yes, but there are always two sides to every story…What’s the school’s response?”  As an article from today’s Engadget.com revealed, the school’s official response is that they admit that they covertly spied on their high school students some 42 times, using the webcams installed on laptops issued by the school.  In their defense, the school noted that they only captured images, not sound…as though that somehow makes it all better??  In civil rights litigation circles, we have a saying for the situation the Lower Merion High School is in…”You’re screwed!”

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Is “Sexting” Child Porn Or Protected Free Speech?

That’s the question the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia will soon answer in a case of first impression, calling into question the controversial practice of “sexting.”  For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo, “sexting” is the practice of using cell phones to send sexually provocative photos of oneself to another.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center‘s Internet & American Life Project, only 4 percent of teens reported sending sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves.  However, the same report indicated that 15 percent of teens with cell phones ages 12-17 had received nude or nearly nude photos by phone.  You can link to the Pew report here.

This case began after a number of sexually explicit photos were discovered by school officials Tunkhannock School District, northwest of Scranton, PA.  School officials contacted the local district attorney.  Ultimately, the district attorney’s office threatened to charge 16 teens with child pornography if they did not attend a recommended after-school education course and write an essay about why “sexting” is wrong.

All but 3 of the teens agreed to the punishment.  However, 3 girls and their parents went to the federal District Court, where Judge James Munley issued an injunction preventing the district attorney’s office from either forcing them to take the class or charging them with child pornography. A PDF copy of the District Court judge’s ruling is in the Box under Miller v. Skumanick.

The matter was argued to the 3rd Circuit on January 15, 2010.  As soon as a decision is reported, an update will be posted on CRW.  In the meantime, what do you think?  As you consider the issue, bear in mind that the district attorney’s office seeks to charge the teens with child pornography, not any adults.  Regardless of how you may feel about “sexting,” do you think the district attorney is properly using child pornography laws in this case?

Additional articles discussing this case can be linked to here and here.

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