The Des Moines School Board voted 6-0 on Tuesday, May 19, 2009 to approve a tougher student conduct policy related to illegal activities and behavior. The policy will go into effect in the Fall of 2009, and will apply to students year-round. Opponents of the new changes have focused their attention on a particular part of the policy: The new code allows district officials to use information from social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook as evidence to discipline students, even in the event the student is not charged by legal authorities.
The Des Moines Board policy certainly raises a number of questions about the authenticity of social networking information as evidence (Is a picture of a student-athlete holding a red Solo cup of Pepsi at a party going to get him or her suspended?) (What if a beer is Photoshopped into the picture?) (What if the picture was taken before the policy was in effect?); the availability of resources to enforce the new policy (Will the district employ an individual to scour the Internet in search of allegedly damning photos?); and whether investigations will be commenced by school administrators, by an opposing team a few days before the big game, or by a parent of a student-athlete from the same team (Is this a tool for the district or does it promote everybody to become a whistle-blower?). Additionally, the moral/social debate about parental decision-making overruled by the school district is alive and well following the board’s actions. From a legal perspective, however, high school extra-curricular activities are a privilege, not a right. Accordingly, the school district is likely entitled to use social networking sites as a means to enforce its policies.
Also, look for students to simply change their habits. Many will avoid situations where alcohol or drugs are involved, while others may not abate their behavior, but will just take the photos off the Internet.
The introduction of Internet information as evidence, especially found on Facebook and MySpace, is a fascinating legal phenomenon. The information is plentiful and can provide tremendous assistance to a fact-finder, but its authenticity is highly questionable.