May 21st, 2010
01:48 AM ET

ACLU: School violated privacy in 'sexting' case

A 19-year-old Pennsylvania woman sued her former high school Thursday, claiming school officials invaded her privacy and violated her free-speech rights when they confiscated her cell phone, found semi-nude photos stored inside and turned the phone over to authorities.

The federal lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, says looking at photos on the woman's phone was like opening her mail or viewing private home videos.

"This search was much farther than what the law allows," said Valerie Burch, an attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "There was no reason to go looking for these pictures on her phone, and unless you have a very good reason, you can't go through someone's private things. We think it is a grave violation of her privacy."

Tunkhannock Area School District officials said they were reviewing the complaint and declined to comment further Thursday.

The lawsuit alleges that the trouble began after a teacher confiscated the cell phone of the student, identified in the suit only as N.N., when she broke school rules by making a call on campus in January 2009.

She was later called to Principal Gregory Ellsworth's office, suspended for three days and told that her cell phone had been turned over to authorities after Ellsworth found semi-nude and nude photos inside, the lawsuit says.

Wyoming County District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. later sent a letter to the school, the lawsuit alleges, threatening to bring child pornography charges against the student unless she completed a re-education course on sexual violence and victimization. N.N. took the class out of fear that she would be prosecuted, the complaint claims.

Skumanick could not be reached for comment.

Read the full story here

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soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Jessica

    I agree with the ACLU, the school violated the privacy of emails, and the cops didn't have a search warrant to take a look at the pictures..!!...the school principal should be fired..!!

    May 21, 2010 at 2:06 am | Report abuse |
  2. Mike

    I absolutley agree. The charges brought up by the school are completely trumped up and make no sense (aren't those the kind of charges we bring on s*x offenders?), and while their intentions were probably well meaning, the school has no place to go through her phone in such a manner.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
    • ken

      if she brought it on school property and knew it would be taken away she should be in jail

      May 21, 2010 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  3. Steven N

    She violated a school rule, im sure most schools probably have rules against even having cells on during class, if not forbidding them all together. I have no porblem with someone taking the phone and seeing what was so important as to violate rules and disrupt a class. This would not be any different then having dirty magazines and having them in a bag taken by school officials. If you dont want people to see your naked pics on your phone dont do anything to have it taken away.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:15 am | Report abuse |
    • RM

      Wow, thank god you aren't making the decisions, you're a nut!

      May 21, 2010 at 2:29 am | Report abuse |
    • logic

      I understand confiscating the phone, but I don't understand looking through the phone. Steven N., you said you have no problem with taking the phone "....and seeing what was so important...". Was it really necessary to see what was so important? Why was this necessary? Sure, take the phone and give out the punishment as stated in the school policies; but there's no need to search the phone.

      May 21, 2010 at 2:45 am | Report abuse |
    • someone with some sense about them

      you cant just go through someone's stuff because you feel like it. i suppose then that you would be cool with your phone being taken up on an airplane, lets say, for making a call and seeing the flight attendant or someone going through your text messages, pictures, and stuff.

      May 21, 2010 at 2:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Chaos

      You have no clue how things actually work in this country.

      May 21, 2010 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
    • abby1

      I agree with parts of your statement. I would imagine that most school districts have policies prohibiting students from using cell phones during class room time. The student should not have been using the cell phone during an inappropriate time such as in the class room. Also, I think the student (and others) should not take nude or semi-nude photos and place them on their cell phone (I know this statement alone will anger a lot of people). However, I do have an issue if the school official was just flipping through the cell phone to read or view irrelevant information. If the school official saw this photo or message as he or she seized the cell phone that's a different thing.

      May 21, 2010 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Clem

      agreed abby

      June 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. shod

    if i had incriminating photos on my phone, i would surely have it locked

    May 21, 2010 at 2:40 am | Report abuse |
  5. christiana

    19 and stil in high school OMG!!! But anyways first sue the whole school district 2nd sue the whole police force..I rest my case.

    May 21, 2010 at 4:05 am | Report abuse |
  6. dennis

    @christiana – read the story ... "A 19-year-old Pennsylvania woman sued her FORMER high school..."

    May 21, 2010 at 7:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Chaos

      How about intead of merely reading the story you UNDERSTAND the story. The conduct took place while she was a student. Man you knuckledraggers are a drain on society.

      May 21, 2010 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. smart enough to know better

    @christiana – perhaps you should read the first couple of paragraphs again. she is not currenlty in high school at 19 yrs old. she filed the suit when she was 19. this happened last january, in 2009 when she was in high school. everyone in this story is an idiot. her for being so pathetic as to have the pics on her phone and using it during class when she knows it is against policy, and for the 'authorities' to act like they did. they are all just soo wrong.

    May 21, 2010 at 7:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Clem

      I don't necessarily blame her, i mean, she was 17 or 18 at the time. I have a bigger problem with the school and officials. They're adults. They should've known better.

      June 6, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  8. JoeJackson

    I guess my first question is... is she hot? She was 19, right? Also you know the principle probably went snooping in the phone hoping to find the pics. When he took them off his phone for his own pleasure he realized he made a mistake and decided to make it a legal issue so he wouldnt get in trouble.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  9. MikeInIowa

    How is having semi-nude and nude pictures on your phone a violation of the law? Was it pictures of someone underage? Was it her on her own phone? There's more to the story and people here are making comments without the full picture.

    May 21, 2010 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Clem

      Well, we can only make comments in accordance to the story. thats all we have to base it on.

      June 6, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. riffd

    The problem that is illustrated here is the law governing the search of electronic devices was written before most of the devices were invented. How can school personell be held accountable for protecting our children from media that is prohibited in schools if they can't look in the digital devices at the media. If a student has a book or a magazine in school the teachers are supposed to make sure that it is appropriate, just because its an e-book, ipad, cell phone doesn't negate the need to monitor the types and kinds of exposures the students have at school. As with so many things, the government has not yet updated the laws to keep current with what is happening in society. As the law is currently written I think a kid could probably sue their parents for looking in their phone too.

    May 21, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jen

    This story is just disgusting and people who praise her are absolutly absured. SUE A SCHOOL? is that the answer now a days? So what happens when she wins and school has to pay whatever millions she wants. what about the other students attending that school who will have to feel the aftermath of her stupidity. shame shame on her

    May 26, 2010 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Clem

      We're not defending her numbnuts. What she did was a teenage thing to do. Not smart yes, but the school can't take the phone and then search thru it.

      The girl needs a talking too about taking pictures of yourself nude, but the school is totally wrong in this matter

      June 6, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jen

    there is more to this story. i live in tunkhannock. is the local news station for all your inquires.

    May 26, 2010 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  13. Bob

    Students have no 4th amendment rights while at school. Police routinely go to schools to search and interrogate kids because they know the kids will not have an adult to help protect them. The school had no right to look through the girl's phone. Absolutely none.

    July 3, 2010 at 8:14 am | Report abuse |
  14. Clinton

    I had my phone taken when I was in high school last year for texting in class. I didn't have dirty pictures on my phone, but my teacher did go through my text messages. When I addressed the situation to the principle, he did nothing, even though my teacher had no right to go through my phone. School administrators should not be allowed to go through a minor's cell phone.

    September 12, 2010 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |