Proposed Policy on Student Cell Phone Searches Violates Privacy

News Release: 
Monday, August 30, 2010

The ACLU of Washington has told the Oak Harbor School Board that a proposed policy for searching student cell phones goes too far. The ACLU-WA said it violates privacy to allow school administrators to search student cell phones without the permission of students or their parents. The ACLU-WA has recommended a revised policy that would respect the privacy of students while enabling the district to address concerns about sexting and other troublesome student uses of electronic devices.

“The proposed policy is overly broad. Searching telecommunication devices impinges on student privacy significantly more than a traditional backpack or locker search.  Cell phones store a virtually limitless amount of highly personal information dating back months or years,” said ACLU-WA Technology and Liberty Project director Brian Alseth, in a letter to the district superintendent.

“By searching a smart phone, administrators could determine a student’s political views, whether a student is having relationship problems, whether their parents might be considering a divorce, whether the student has personal health issues or is pregnant, and whether the student likes sports, World of Warcraft, or shopping for lingerie,” said Alseth

The ACLU-WA believes a more effective policy would be that school officials may seize devices that they reasonably suspect to contain illegal content and may offer to turn the devices over to law enforcement. Law enforcement officials must then proceed to obtain a warrant to search the device where there is probable cause to do so.

And when school officials have reasonable suspicion that a student has at school a personal telecommunication device that has been used to create, send, share, or view content in violation of school rules, or in a manner that disrupts the learning environment or violates the privacy rights of others, officials may confiscate the device and return it to the student or parent at the end of the school day.

The ACLU said the district can deter sexting at school by banning students from sending, sharing, or viewing sexually explicit material while at school; the proposed policy includes such a ban. However, “sexually explicit material” should be specifically defined so that both students and administrators have reasonable notice about what is banned and what is not. Further, the policy should not ban mere possession of such material – the policy would be nearly impossible to enforce given that a student’s telecommunication device could contain such content without the student’s knowledge or consent.

“What matters is whether a student is viewing, sending, or sharing the material at school, not whether such material is inadvertently on a device as a result of a third party’s message or a student’s web browsing while away from school,” said the ACLU-WA’s Alseth.