Thank God for Mississippi! The Magnolia State continues to provide us with interesting and enlightening court cases that make for important judicial rulings. The latest involves the toxic combination of cheerleaders and Facebook.
The captain of the cheerleading squad reported to the sponsor that a freshman cheerleader had cursed at and threatened her on the bus ride coming back from an event. The captain said that the verbal abuse turned to cyber abuse via Facebook later that evening.
The sponsor called the squad together and gave them a lecture about the risks and dangers in the use of social media. She also “requested” that each member of the squad give her their Facebook username and password. That’s where the legal issue arose.
After reviewing Facebook messages from the freshman (soon to be known as “the plaintiff”) to the captain, the sponsor suspended the girl from the squad for two weeks. The principal and superintendent upheld the sponsor’s decision. So the plaintiff sued all three of them, alleging that her constitutional rights had been violated in a variety of ways.
The recent decision from the 5th Circuit focuses on a narrow issue. It does not tell us whether or not it was OK for the sponsor to review Facebook messages that were done off campus and away from school. It does not tell us if it was OK for the sponsor to ask the students to disclose their login information. The issue was: did the sponsor do something that was “clearly established” as being unconstitutional at that time?
Thus the court had to get into the time machine and travel back to 2007 when these events occurred. Would a cheerleader sponsor at that time know that requesting a student’s Facebook information was unconstitutional? Would a principal know that? Would a superintendent know that? The court said: No. The law in 2007 was not “clearly established” on this point. Therefore, none of these school officials can be held personally liable. They are all entitled to “qualified immunity” due to the murkiness of the law at the time they took action.
Thus, a narrow decision that does not answer the bigger questions. But no doubt it is good news to three Mississippi school officials. The case is Jackson v. Ladner, decided by the 5th Circuit on September 15, 2015. You can find the case at 2015 WL 5332664.
DAWG BONE: QUALIFIED IMMUNITY PROTECTS SCHOOL OFFICIALS WHEN THE LAW IS MURKY AND UNCLEAR.