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Are schools allowed to monitor their students on social media? Middle and high schools in Glendale, California are doing just that. School officials have hired a company to track 13,000 students' online posts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and others, paying more than $40,000 a year for the service, CBS News reports.
Glendale's superintendent says the reason behind this somewhat drastic new measure is an emphasis on student safety. It also allows school officials to intervene if students are discussing suicide, violence, substance abuse, or bullying.
What are the legal implications behind this?
The Fourth Amendment guarantees U.S. citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures absent a warrant issued with probable cause. But it also requires government action and a reasonable expectation of privacy in what's being searched.
Government action doesn't apply when private persons are conducting the search. For example, if a friend is snooping in another friend's bag, this may be a violation of the bag-owner's privacy, but the Fourth Amendment wouldn't apply because the friend is not a government figure.
In the case of schools monitoring students' social media, however, Glendale's public school district does qualify as a government entity.
No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy
But the "reasonable expectation of privacy" part is where the Fourth Amendment test falls short.
Students in Glendale can't be seen as having a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their social media posts, because whatever students are posting can be seen by the general public. Unless the firm hired by the school district is hacking into students' accounts or using their passwords, then there is no Fourth Amendment issue here.
A similar argument can be made when it comes to trash that one leaves out on one's curb. Courts have ruled that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in trash left out by a curb for pickup, because the (former) owner of the trash knowingly put it out there in public.
So while it may seem invasive, the best way for students to approach this situation is to be informed about their rights. If they don't want their social media accounts to be viewed by certain people, they should set their profiles to "private" and limit the amount of information they share.
The social media lesson here: When you have a public profile, there really is no limit as to who can see this information.