Pa. school spying case: What's the law?

Lawyers argue over laptop spying, Fourth Amendment, in loco parentis

The suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students through their school-issued laptops doesn't have a legal leg to stand on, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

Another area attorney, however, said the case is not nearly that clear-cut.

Last week, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., on behalf of their son Blake, sued the Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pa., accusing it of spying on students and students' families using the cameras in the MacBook laptops issued to each high school student in the district.

According to the original complaint, Blake Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of "improper behavior in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. District officials have said technical staff remotely activated notebook cameras only as part of efforts to recover lost or stolen computers. The Robbins family has denied that Blake's laptop was reported lost or stolen.

The lawsuit accused Lower Merion of violating the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and other federal and state statues, including the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and of violating Blake Robbins' Fourth Amendment rights.

That last is the crux of the case and its legal implications, Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in an interview today. "Using the camera to see what's going on in the house, off school property and off school hours -- there's absolutely no way they can do that without consent or a warrant," Walczak said, referring to the Fourth Amendment, which offers protection against searches or seizures of property.

"And forget the law for a moment.... Would anyone allow a school district to install a video camera in a teenager's bedroom? That's ludicrous," said Walczak.

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania branch of the ACLU asked a federal judge to let it file an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," brief in support of the Robbins' demand that the school district stop turning on laptop cameras.

The district's practice would be questionable even if it had disclosed the fact that it could turn on the laptops' cameras, Walczak argued. "It has to be informed consent. I find it hard to imagine that any parent could agree to let a school district essentially enter their child's bedroom," he said. "And by informed consent, the school district would have had to say something along the lines of, 'We'll be taking photos when your kid's [masturbating] in his room.' As if a parent would then say, 'Where do I sign? I've always wanted to know what he's doing in there.'"

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