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Testing the Limits: Your Teen's Legal Rights

Internet Privacy
Internet privacy
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John Ritter

Teens consider cyberspace their turf—a private, no-holds-barred arena where they can say and do what they want. So they're shocked to find that blogs and social network posts meant for their friends can get them into trouble at school. In Pembroke Pines, Florida, a principal recently suspended a teen who set up a Facebook page where friends could heap abuse on an English teacher. Two years ago in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, athletes were banned from playing for several weeks when administrators got wind of Facebook photos showing the kids drinking at a party. The Internet isn't the only place where schools might pry. At Monarch High in Boulder, Colorado, officials confiscated student cell phones and read their text messages, then transcribed them and put them into their files. When the families sued, the school settled and promised not to view texts—unless there was parental permission.

The courts are divided on what boundaries administrators can cross. In Pennsylvania, judges recently issued opposite rulings in two cases—one said a middle school could discipline a girl for mocking her principal on MySpace, while another found that a similar parody was protected by the Constitution. Clearly, though, the presumption that schools can't punish off-campus behavior is breaking down. "Kids think the Internet is a legal-free zone, and it's not," says David Hudson, a scholar at Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center. "If you call the principal a sex offender on your blog and it's false, that's defamation and you can be charged with a crime."

Lesson plan: You've told your child before, and you've got to say it again: Anything she puts on the Internet is public—"like a huge billboard with her name on it," says Susan Epstein, a family therapist and founder of Kids can't assume that teachers won't see insulting remarks, party scenes or provocative pictures posted online or sent by cell phone; if they make the rounds in the hallways, there's a good chance officials will get wind of them. Athletes may be held to a higher standard, "especially if compromising photos of drinking are found, and they signed a no-alcohol agreement," says Riddile. He also cautions against accessing blogs or social network pages from class computers. "If you use their equipment, that makes it a school issue," he says.