A California high school student is suing her school district, alleging she was harassed by a school employee and cut from the basketball team over her personal social media activity—including a retweet of celebrity musician Snoop Dogg.
The vice principal and girls’ basketball coach at Sierra High School allegedly targeted senior Racquel Alec in order to “intentionally humiliate her, discriminate against her, or keep her from playing on the girls’ basketball team for the 2016-2017 season,” according to a lawsuit filed on Alec’s behalf in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California last month.
At issue: Alec’s “likes” and retweets of “photographs of musical artists or celebrities on her private social media page, such as Snoop Dog [sic] holding, what appeared to be, a marijuana joint in his hand.”
The suit was first reported on by the Fresno Bee.
An internal investigation conducted by the 1,300-student Sierra Unified School District last spring cleared the vice principal/coach of wrongdoing.
In a brief interview, Superintendent Melissa Ireland said only that “our [social-media] policy is directly aligned with California state law” before referring additional questions to the district’s lawyer.
The case is just the latest in a flood of social-media-related controversies that have engulfed schools and students in recent years.
Suing Her School District
The lawsuit contends that Sierra Unified violated Alec’s first-amendment rights, state law, and the district’s own policy.
According to court documents, Alec had previously gotten into a fight with a teammate, leading the school to press her to sign an “athletics contract” stating that she would only be allowed to continue playing basketball if she maintained a “clean discipline record.”
After some delay, Alec and her parents agreed to sign the contract—only to be told that she was no longer eligible to play because of her social-media postings.
The vice-principal and coach found the postings by enlisting her daughter and another teen to view Alec’s social-media accounts, which were private, the suit alleges.
After numerous meetings with Ireland and others, the suit alleges, Alec was allowed to try out for the basketball team—and then was the only girl cut from the team.
The suit contends Alec’s First Amendment rights were violated because “passive clicking/liking of an image posted of a celebrity or musical artist” using a personal social-media account and personal computing device while outside of school is not student speech.
Furthermore, the content of the messages did not “threaten or discuss any school personnel or activities whatsoever,” the suit contends, and they could not be accessed at Alec’s school, which blocks Twitter from student use.
Alec was “completely and emotionally devastated” by the “mental and psychological anguish” caused by the vice principal/coach, the suit contends.
The family is seeking unspecified damages.
Snoop Dogg Weighs In
Bradley Shear, a Maryland-based attorney who specializes in social-media and privacy law, said the district’s actions appeared to be an instance of “major overreach.”
“In general, public schools may not punish a student for retweeting ‘inappropriate’ social media posts of celebrities, politicians, or pro athletes,” Shear said. “I am not sure what legal legs the school is standing on.”
In recent years, schools have wrestled with whether they can—or should—monitor students’ personal social-media accounts, demand access to student passwords for those accounts, and teach digital citizenship.
Last spring, Education Week also highlighted 10 instances of students landing in hot water for their social-media activity, including references to school shootings and racist rants that led to suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and lawsuits.
The lawyer for Sierra Unified did not immediately return a call for comment.
Snoop Dogg, however, did weigh in via social media.
“Have her lawyers hit my team this is nonsense,” the star posted on Instagram Monday.
Photo: Snoop Dogg performs at the 2017 BET Experience last summer in Los Angeles.--Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.