Public Schools: Still Shredding the Constitution

I really still can’t make sense of why so many public schools insist that they have the right to invade the privacy of their students. Even though they are government entities, and thus bound by Constitutional limits on the powers of government, they blithely insist they have the right to subject students to invasive searches without probable cause, confine them against their will, limit or eliminate entirely their free speech and press rights, and more. These things are bad enough on school property during school hours, but more and more our public schools claim these same fictional authorities over students after-hours and off-grounds.

A fine example occurred recently in Pennsylvania—one that is surprising to me only because people are acting like it’s something out of the ordinary. The Lower Merion School District, like many districts, issued laptop computers to its students for the year which, provided they paid for some insurance, they were permitted to take home and use after hours. The school, however, had installed software that allowed them to remotely monitor the webcams on these computers. The district claims that they only used the technology when laptops were reported stolen, but at least one student—who is now suing the district—was confronted by school officials after being caught on webcam supposedly breaking school rules in his own home.

First off, school rules and authority do not apply at home. Period. The end. Even if the school had the right to use the webcam to take the picture of the student supposedly doing something wrong, what happens outside of school is none of the school’s business. Second and more importantly, schools simply do not have the authority to invade a student’s home, electronically or otherwise. In fact, what the school system did here was egregious enough that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched an investigation . . . though if they were to start an investigation every time a public school trampled a student’s legal rights they wouldn’t have time for much of anything else.

What on earth made the school officials think this was appropriate? We live in a country where fourteen-year-old girls get slapped with child pornography charges for taking photos of themselves; what if the school had turned on the webcam and captured a student in a state of undress? That’s transmitting child pornography over the Internet, plain and simple. Using recording devices in this way is also an unreasonable search and seizure (unless they had a warrant), and violates federal wiretap laws.

This has gotten far, far out of hand. Once again, maybe our schools would be a bit better if they redirected their efforts toward education instead of spying on, restricting, and micromanaging their students.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.