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Big Brother is Watching Civil Rights Abuses by Schools

Every time I wonder if I'm becoming just a bit paranoid about the ability of government to intrude on our civil liberties and to further erode the Constitution, I'm reminded that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. By the way, when I say "government," I'm talking about not just the federal government, but state and local governments, such as municipalities. On February 11 of this year, a class action lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia by a student in...

Every time I wonder if I'm becoming just a bit paranoid about the ability of government to intrude on our civil liberties and to further erode the Constitution, I'm reminded that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

By the way, when I say "government," I'm talking about not just the federal government, but state and local governments, such as municipalities.

On February 11 of this year, a class action lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia by a student in the Lower Merion School District alleging that the school district was invading the privacy of students by using "spy cameras" imbedded in school issued laptops.

Sound like a science fiction movie? Sound like the rantings and ravings of the kinds of persons we usually marginalize when they come up with these theories?

Ask yourself this: what if most of the people that we tend to ignore because we've been taught to ignore them by the government are actually telling the truth: What if the government really is out to get us?

Don't worry, I'm not nuts. I don't believe that. But I do believe the government is counting on our complacency in chipping away at the bright, firm line our Constitution once established.

It turns out to be the case here, at least.

The school was spying on students using imbedded cameras in the laptops activated remotely by the school officials with the ability to monitor students whether they were using the computers at the time or not.

That's right. The school has confirmed in defending the lawsuit that in fact, teachers and officials could look at students in the privacy of their own homes, doing whatever it was that the students were doing, whether it involved the laptop or not.

How do we know this? How did this suit get started?

A student was eating candy but the teacher who was spying on the student through the hidden spy camera thought the student was taking pills. The school confronted the student with the picture obtained with the use of the embedded camera and, much to its embarrassment and much to what should be a cold feeling creeping up your spine, if you value your civil rights, they were wrong.

They were wrong, and as a consequence of being wrong, opened up a huge can of beans; the fallout has yet to be determined.

Do I hope that the class action civil rights suit succeeds? Of course. But what does that tell us about the state of affairs in the country today?

When I was a kid conspiracy movies were usually about people who were sane and who were trying to uncover illegal conspiracies that really were happening. The bad guys in those movies were the conspirators and their allies. Yes, the conspirators lied. Yes, they misdirected. But the sense in the film was always that the anti-conspiracy people were the "heroes." They had credibility and they were doing good work.

I don't think that's an accident. I think that was the sign of the times. When I was a kid, the Watergate conspiracy had blown the lid of the "virtuous" American government. The American government's atrocities in Vietnam for the cause of "freedom" had, I think at last, finally disabused Americans of the idea that "America, love it or leave it" was the way to relate to our government. The public was prepared to hold the government accountable for its conspiracies. We'd finally realized that patriotism meant the right to criticize.

Then a strange thing happened in the 1980s and 90s. The X-files came along. All sorts of shows and movies came along which were promoting the idea that there was a gradually evolving "lunatic" fringe of people who thought that there were conspiracies going on, but who were no longer the sane heroes of the 1970s. These were the marginalized lunatics of the 80s and 90s. By the end of the 1990s, popular culture had taught all Americans that anyone who felt that there was pretty much any conspiracy going on at any level was out of their minds. The very idea that the American government could ever be involved - - once again - - in something like Watergate, or the Agent Orange cover up, or the atrocities in Vietnam, or (take your pick), was simply ludicrous.

What the school district did is atrocious and disgusting. The fact that the school officials even considered the idea potentially appropriate, no matter what their motives, is so deeply objectionable to me as a civil rights lawyer, and should be so deeply objectionable to you as an American citizen, that we should all be outraged that there was even a culture that permitted a conversation about, let alone the actual deployment and activation of, secret spy cameras.

There has to be a limit where the government simply is not to be allowed to intrude on our personal liberties. There has to be a rational limit beyond which the government is powerless to stop us from destroying ourselves if we wish to do so. It's what freedom means. If that kid was taking pills, and he is able to hide that from his family, and his family is unable to detect it, then it may lead to a tragedy. I understand that the school's motivation was to potentially stop drug abuse, but where do we draw the line? Do the ends always justify the means? What if the school was making a moral judgment about what that student was doing whether or not it proved to be self-destructive? Would the school start monitoring the sort of websites that the kid visited? Would the school start monitoring the content of any political speech in which the child was engaged in the privacy of their own room?

I hope the Lower Merion School District serves as a stark and bright line in the sand for when it's okay and not okay for the government to step on the Constitution.

The problem is, I think we're in the middle of an alarming trend in the other direction. I think some people who read this are not going to care what the school did; they're going to say this was just a good intention gone wrong. By their logic, good intentions will justify any means, as long as the end desired is a good one. Some people just won't care because they think that security is more important than freedom.

You should care. You should care a lot.

This is why civil rights exist, and this is why I'm a civil rights lawyer.

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