School District Pays $70K to Settle Lawsuit Over Girl's Facebook Posts

Outcome redefines schools' rights to search student devices, accounts.

ByABC News
March 28, 2014, 3:25 AM

March 28, 2014— -- One Minnesota student’s legal battle over Facebook posts could send shock waves through schools across the country, redefining schools’ rights to search students’ devices and social media accounts without reasonable cause.

The Minnewaska School District has agreed to pay $70,000 to settle the 2012 case involving former sixth-grader Riley Stratton, now 15 years old.

In a phone interview with ABC News, Stratton said the ordeal began after she posted disparaging comments on her Facebook page about a teacher’s aide. She was at home at the time and not using school computers.

“I posted on my Facebook and said I didn’t like this Kathy person … I hated this Kathy person because she was mean,” Stratton said.

Though she was not using a school computer, Stratton says she received a detention and was forced to write a letter of apology. But it didn’t end there. Several days later, school officials received a complaint that Stratton and a male classmate were having explicit private conversations on Facebook – again, not on school computers. That’s when she says school officials made a demand.

“They interrogated me and told me to give them my password,” she said.

“I didn’t want detention, so I had to give them this.”

The American Civil Liberties Union took on the case, saying Stratton’s constitutional rights were violated, including the right to free speech and privacy. They sued for, among other things, “emotional distress.”

“Students have a lot of free speech rights on campus, but they are even more enhanced when they are off-campus. So that made it a more egregious violation of Riley’s constitutional rights,” said Wally Hilke, an attorney at Lindquist & Vennum, which represented Riley in the case.

The two sides settled, and while the school district is not admitting any wrongdoing, Superintendent Greg Schmidt says the district has updated its policies regarding the search of devices and social media accounts.

"[We'll] be certainly much more cautious about punishing people for things they say off-campus outside of school time," Schmidt said.

Stratton simply wants to move forward.

“I lost trust in adults,” she said. “I’m just happy it’s over.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.