by Sara Mullen
PHILADELPHIA The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today against the TunkhannockAreaSchool District (WyomingCounty) for searching a student's confiscated cell phone without probable cause and punishing her for storing semi-nude pictures of herself on the device. The school subsequently turned her phone over to law enforcement.
"Students do not lose their privacy rights at the schoolhouse door," said Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's Legal Director and one of N.N.'s lawyers. "School administrators have no more right to look through personal photographs stored on a student's cell phone then they have the right to rummage through her purse, read her diary and mail, or view her family photo album."
In January 2009, a teacher confiscated the cell phone of N.N., a 17-year-old senior, for using a cell phone on school grounds in violation of school policy. Later that morning, Principal Gregory Ellsworth informed N.N. that he had found "explicit" photos stored on her cell phone, which he turned over to law enforcement. He then gave her a three day out-of-school suspension, which she served. According to the student handbook, the first offense for misuse of a cell phone is a ninety-minute Saturday detention and the confiscation of the phone for the rest of the day.
The photographs, which were not visible on the screen and required multiple steps to locate, were taken on the device's built-in camera and were never circulated to other students. N.N. appeared fully covered in most of the photographs, although several showed her naked breasts and one indistinct image showed her standing upright while fully naked. The photographs were intended to be seen only by N.N.'s long-time boyfriend and herself.