Facebook Spying: The Third Rail of Public School Administration

Photo credit: Rafael Anderson Gonzales Mendoza (andercismo) of Flickr

By Spencer Hutchins

There was another collision this week at the intersection of Facebook and Privacy.

A high school principal resigned following allegations that she created a fake Facebook account in order to spy on students and parents. While the uneasy relationship between social media and personal privacy continues to present challenges, certain community standards appear to be set firmly in place. For example, Facebook spying by authority figures is right out.

Principal Louise Losos of Clayton High School in Missouri is said to have friended on Facebook more than 300 students, parents, and community members under a phony profile for “Suzy Harriston.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that “a search of public records in Missouri found no results for anyone named ‘Suzy Harriston.’”

The profile was active until a student athlete “outed” Suzy as Principal Losos in April. The profile disappeared. The next day, the school district announced Losos would take a leave of absence. Then, one month later, the district announced her resignation effective June 30. In its statement, the district noted its “fundamental dispute” with Losos over the appropriate use of social media.

Stories like this are becoming more and more commonplace. From work to school and everywhere in between, private social media profiles are facing greater scrutiny in the public areas of our lives. In 2009, six employees were fired from a sheriff’s office when he discovered they had clicked “like” on a Facebook update posted by his political rival. Last month, a federal judge upheld the terminations, ruling that “liking” a status update did not constitute protected speech under the First Amendment. Bland v. Roberts, No. 4:11cv45, 2012 WL 1428198 (E.D. Va. Apr. 24, 2012).

Attempts by employers to access employees’ and applicants’ restricted Facebook profiles have become widespread. So much so that Congress is considering legislation—such as the Social Networking Online Protection Act and the Password Protection Act of 2012 introduced on Wednesday—that would ban employers from forcing workers or applicants to share online account passwords.

Yet, for all the concern expressed about online privacy, Losos’ alleged Facebook activity underscores an important reality of the world in which we live. People’s public words and behaviors are no longer restricted only to what they say and do in person. Rather, the second life lived out by so many on the internet can have a significant impact on the healthy functioning of a community. The ongoing challenges of cyberbullying offer clear evidence of that, as discussed in Kerra Melvin’s recent post on this blog.

Facebook and other social media sites are windows through which we look to help discover who a person really is. It is why prospective employers want to pry. It is why bosses want to look. And it may very well be the reason a high school principal wants to know what her students are up to on Facebook.

During the firestorm surrounding Losos’ resignation, it went unreported that last year Newsweek ranked Clayton High School among the top 100 high schools nation-wide. With so much of people’s lives playing out online nowadays—especially young people—the principal of a school known for its quality may very well wish to maintain certain standards among her student body. In that regard, the desire to keep a watchful eye on Facebook is understandable. However, where a note passed in class or bullying behavior at recess is not protected by a right to privacy, there is a very real expectation of privacy when it comes to a student’s Facebook account.

So our society continues to negotiate the contours of this brave new online world, weighing the community’s need for security and discipline against the individual’s right to privacy. But while we’re working on it, principals should be advised: phony Facebook accounts are not a good idea.

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