May 2012 Bar Bulletin
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May 2012 Bar Bulletin

New Guide Helps Students Navigate Digital Age

By Doug Honig


Text messaging, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have joined books and pencils as part of the everyday reality of being in school. Online and mobile communications innovations raise new and old questions about the legal rights of public school students.

In response, the ACLU of Washington has published the first-ever guidebook laying out the legal rights of our state's public school students in using electronic communications devices. Student Rights and Responsibilities in the Digital Age deals with a wide spectrum of issues that are arising as students express themselves on cell phones and laptops and via blogs, chat rooms, and a host of other new avenues.

The guidebook provides information about legal rights online, as well as the limits to those rights. While school officials must respect the free speech and privacy rights of students, the young people themselves have to follow reasonable rules aimed to ensure that school is a safe, welcoming place where all can learn.

The 33-page booklet is aimed at students, their parents, educators and administrators. Major sections address Technology and Free Speech, Recording People at School, Searches at School, and - of course - What To Do If You Think Your School Has Violated Your Rights. Some of the cutting-edge legal issues it examines include use of social networks, location tracking devices, cyber-bullying and sexting.

Yes, this is a frontier area of our legal system, with black letter law often lacking and litigation just emerging in the past decade or so. But the principles of the Bill of Rights and state constitution, plus decades of case law on student rights, are there to provide guidance.

For an issue such as bullying, there indeed is law that clearly makes schools responsible for taking action to end it. And when it comes to sending sexually explicit images, videos or other digital content - aka sexting - students can get in big trouble with current child pornography laws.

Here's a quick quiz highlighting some of the ABCs of student rights in the digital age:

1. True or false: Schools can ban all cell phone use in the classroom.

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