Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can School Administrators Search Cell Phones?

A high school newspaper has highlighted an element of cell phone searches that I had yet to consider: the ability of school officials to search the contents of student cell phones. Kudos to the Sharon High School Talon!

The student paper suggests that "If you break the school rule of using your cell phone during school hours, your right to the Expectation of Privacy policy is thrown out the window. However, the administration is not allowed to confiscate or look through your phone if it is not visible or being used."

I enjoy some of the straight-forward reasoning of High School students: "Whether or not it is legal doesn't matter to me; it's morally and ethically wrong" said one student. Another was more practical: "I just take out my battery when they take my phone, and so should you."

So what is the law on this? Can a school search the contents of a student cell phone, like it can search the contents of a backpack or locker? In the recent Redding case, the Court held that the strip search of a student to find a prescription drug violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court explained that a standard of reasonable suspicion applies to a determination of to determine the legality of a school administrator's search of a student, and that any search must be reasonably related to the legitimate school objectives and not excessively intrusive. This means, in plainer English, that a school administrator can conduct a limited search when there is a "a moderate chance of finding evidence of wrongdoing."

Under this standard, school administrators probably cannot conduct random searches of the contents of cell phones. However, they can probably search the contents of a cell phone if there is reason to believe that the phone is used for criminal activity, such as bullying, sexting, or threats to safety. However, like with the strip search case, there is a limit to the actions of school administrators. The nature of the suspected illegal activity – both in terms of threat to student safety and the exact use of the phone – will govern how much of the contents of a cell phone can be examined. For example, an allegation of a threatening phone call probably cannot justify a review of the photographs on a cell phone.

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