Federal Judge: High Schooler Gave Up Privacy by Posting Bikini Photo on Facebook
Fayette schools dismissed from case; suit survives against administrator who used Facebook bikini photo in forum
When a Fayette County high school student posted a photo of herself clad in a bikini on Facebook, she had no legitimate expectation that the photo would remain private, a federal judge in Newnan has held.
That photo—which student Chelsea Chaney made available to her Facebook friends and their Facebook friends—was discovered by a county school administrator looking for illustrations to use in a public forum on the risks of sharing personal information via social media. He subsequently used Chaney's photo and identified her by name in a 2011 community presentation entitled "Once It's There, It's There to Stay," that included parents, faculty and many of Chaney's fellow students.
In June, Chaney—now a student at the University of Georgia—sued the Fayette County school district and its director of technology services, Curtis Cearley, for $2 million and legal fees over Cearley's use of Chaney's photo at the forum. Chaney's suit claimed that her U.S. constitutional right to privacy was violated. Other claims involved state law and included defamation, negligence and privacy claims such as the public disclosure of private affairs, the misappropriation of Chaney's name and likeness and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Taken during a family outing at a lake, Chaney's Facebook photo showed her posing in a bikini next to a life-size cardboard replica of rapper Snoop Dogg (now known as Snoop Lion). The rapper was holding a can of Blast—a caffeinated alcoholic beverage he promotes. Chaney claimed she was humiliated when Cearley singled her out at the forum as an example of the long-lasting dangers of social media.
In a Sept. 30 order, U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten dismissed Chaney's claims against the school district and against Cearley in his official capacity as a school employee. The state claims against Cearley individually remain in place.
"The Court intentionally avoids, where possible, commenting on the appropriateness of Cearley's actions," Batten wrote. But he made clear that Chaney's privacy claims were a nonstarter, writing that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy for information he or she voluntarily turns over to third parties.
That is what Chaney did when she made the bikini photo available for viewing not only to friends but to a far broader pool of their friends, the judge said. "Chaney permitted access to her Facebook page using a semi-private setting that allowed her Facebook friends and friends of friends to view her page, including her pictures," Batten wrote. "Because Chaney was a minor, this was the most inclusive privacy setting she could choose.
"While Chaney may select her Facebook friends, she cannot select her Facebook friends' friends," he said. "By intentionally selecting the broadest privacy setting available to her at that time, Chaney made her page available to potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of people whom she did not know (i.e., the friends of her Facebook friends.)"
In doing so, Batten said, "Chaney not only voluntarily turned over the picture to her Facebook friends, but she also chose to share the picture with an additional audience of unknown size, likely comprised of people Chaney did not know, subject to contiuous expansion without Chaney's approval."
On Thursday, Phillip Hartley of Gainesville's Hartley Harbin & Hawkins, who represents the school district, said he was pleased with the order. "It was clear he understood not only the legal issues involved but the practical, technological issues of social media. We certainly believe he came up with the right decision to dismiss the school district," the lawyer said.