INDIANAPOLIS — Two sophomore girls have sued their school district after they were punished for posting sexually suggestive photos on MySpace during their summer vacation.
The American Civil Liberties Union, in a federal lawsuit filed recently on behalf of the girls, argues that Churubus
co High School violated the girls’ free speech rights when it banned them from extracurricular activities for a joke that didn’t involve the school. They say the district humiliated the girls by requiring them to apologize to an all-male coaches’ board and undergo counseling.
Some child advocates argue that schools should play a role in monitoring students’ behavior, especially when dealing with minors. And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that students can be disciplined for activities that happen outside of school, so long as the school can prove the activities were disruptive or posed a danger and that it was foreseeable the activities would find their way to campus.
But some legal experts say that in this digital era, schools must accept that students will engage in some questionable behavior in cyberspace and during off hours.
“From the standpoint of young people, there’s no real distinction between online life and offline life,” said John Palfrey, a Harvard University law professor and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “It’s just life.”
In the Indiana case, the ACLU argues that the district and Churubusco Principal Austin Couch went too far in banning the two sophomores from fall sports, requiring them to apologize to the all-male coaches’ board and undergo counseling after the photographs were circulated at school.
Erik Weber, an attorney for the Smith-Green school district, said Couch was enforcing the northeast Indiana school’s athletic code, which allows the principal to bar from school activities any student-athlete whose behavior in or out of school “creates a disruptive influence on the discipline, good order, moral or educational environment at Churubusco High School.”
ACLU legal director Ken Falk insists the Churubusco case doesn’t warrant the punishment the district handed out.
“We all did things when we were sophomores in high school that can be construed as immature or problematic or whatever, but that is not the issue here,” he said. “The issue is what possible impact this could have on the school environment, and the answer is none.”
The girls, identified only by their initials in the suit, took the photos during a sleepover with friends before school started this summer and posted them on their MySpace pages, setting the privacy controls so only those designated as friends could view them. In the photos, the girls wore lingerie and pretended to lick a penis-shaped lollipop.
Weber declined to say how the photos reached Couch, but the suit contends that someone copied the pictures and shared them with school officials, and they eventually were given to the principal.
Couch initially suspended both girls from all extracurricular activities for the year but reduced the penalty to 25 percent of fall semester activities after the girls completed three counseling sessions and apologized to the coaches board.