A case decided by a Federal court in Georgia just two months ago determined that a school district’s use of a photograph taken from a student’s Facebook page was neither a violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment freedom from illegal search.
A Georgia school district hosted a countywide “Community Awareness Seminar” at a local high school. The Plaintiff, Chelsea Chaney, a seventeen-year-old student at the school, attended the seminar.
The seminar discussed a number of topics, including Internet safety and the permanency of postings to social media websites, including Facebook privacy. The Defendant, Curtis Cearley, director of technology services for the school district, presented a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Internet Safety.”
The presentation was on how social media will follow a person, and possibly embarrass them for the rest of their life. It also showed how postings could be used by third parties. The presentation included a slide of a cartoon depicting a daughter approaching her mother about the mother’s Facebook page from years past, which listed the mother’s hobbies as “body art, bad boys, and jello (sic) shooters.” The cartoon was designed to show that the mother was humiliated by her earlier bad behavior.
The slide immediately following the cartoon was entitled “Once It’s There—It’s There to Stay” and featured a picture of the Plaintiff in a bikini standing next to a life-size cutout of singer Calvin Broadus, aka “Snoop Lion,” faka “Snoop Dogg.” The slide also included her full name. The technology director apparently had found the picture while browsing students’ Facebook pages for pictures to use in his presentation. The picture had been taken of the Plaintiff while on a family’s vacation. She had posted the picture on her Facebook page. The Plaintiff contended the family vacation did not involve bad boys or Jell-O shots. The teenager sued, claiming the use of her picture labeled her as a “sexually-promiscuous, anti-establishment abuser of alcohol.”
The young girl alleged that the clear implication was that she is a promiscuous alcohol abuser who would have to worry about her Internet postings when the slide featuring her picture is shown with the previous slide of the embarrassed-mother cartoon. Paper copies of the presentation, including the slide featuring Chaney’s picture and name, were also distributed at the seminar.
Chaney’s Facebook “friends” and “friends of friends” had access to her social media site using a semi-private setting. This allowed them to view her page, including the pictures she had posted. This was the most inclusive privacy setting Chaney could choose under Facebook’s policies. Neither Clearley or the school district contacted Chaney or her parents to obtain consent to use pictures from Chaney’s Facebook page prior to the presentation.
The Fourth Amendment requires that one must have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the place searched or item seized. Chaney claimed that she had a reasonable expectation in the privacy regarding her Facebook picture, and that Cearley and the school district violated this expectation when the photo was used in the presentation.
Chaney argued that her privacy-setting choice of “friends and friends of friends” was “semi-private” and that her Facebook page was accessible, “only to those people she had specifically approved.” Chaney stated that Cearley and the school district improperly searched her Facebook page and illegally seized her picture.
The court found that Chaney could not show that her expectation was legitimate. It also found that, although Chaney may select her Facebook friends, she could not select her Facebook friends’ friends. Thus, Chaney made her page potentially available to the world by making her Facebook page available to friends of her Facebook friends.
“The Supreme Court consistently has held that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” In this case, Chaney not only voluntarily turned over the picture to her Facebook friends, but she also chose to share the picture with people Chaney did not know, even though it would be without Chaney’s specific approval.
Citing a 2012 case, the Georgia court found that a person, “… surrendered his expectation of privacy when he posted to his Facebook profile and shared those posts with his Facebook friends. It reasoned that when an individual shares a photograph with his friends on Facebook, that individual ‘has no justifiable expectation that his “friends” would keep his profile private,’ and any ‘legitimate expectation of privacy ended when he disseminated posts to his “friends” because those “friends” were free to use the information however they wanted.’”
The Georgia court went further and addressed the issue of Chaney’s age and manner of dress. The fact that the photo was of Chaney in a bikini does not require a different result. Chaney voluntarily posted a picture of herself in a bikini and she chose to share the picture on Facebook with the broadest possible audience for a Facebook user her age.
The fact that Chaney was a minor at the time also did not affect the court’s decision. The court specifically found that the fact that Chaney being a minor did not create a Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy.
Clearly, while what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens on Facebook may not always be limited to your friends.