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Invasion of Privacy Worth $100 Million?

MitchTwo years ago, members of the Pearl High School cheerleading squad in Pearl, Miss., allegedly were told by their coach to give her their Facebook passwords.

They did.

And then most of them, reportedly, erased their accounts.

But at least one girl did not. And as a result, Mandi Jackson, a freshman, had her e-mails read by the coach, who, according to a legal filing, discovered profanity in some of the messages.

She benched her.

Then she suspended her from cheering.

It is now two years later, Mandi is a junior, and she and her parents, in filing a $100 million lawsuit against the school, claim that the coach not only violated her constitutional rights, but also trashed her high school experience, causing her to be an outcast, depressed and suffering a drop in grades.

Oh, for the days of passing notes in chemistry class.

Knowing how to behave

Now, I won't get into whether a high school experience is ruined if you're no longer on the cheerleading squad. (What about the girls who don't make the squad during tryouts?) And I won't begin to speculate on how this is worth $100 million.

But I do have to say, on the constitutional part, Mandi the cheerleader is probably dead on.

Going into someone's Facebook account and reading messages -- even if that person gave you the password -- has to be the modern equivalent of tapping a phone or hiding under the bed and eavesdropping.

There's no way I can see how that's not an invasion of privacy -- since it wasn't on school time, it wasn't a school activity, and the school isn't sponsoring or paying for the Facebook space. But to take that information and use it against the kid as punishment -- well, we're into a whole different area.

How is that any different than, when we were kids, if the football coach climbed up to our tree house and listened in our macho teenage talk about our teachers, then suspended us from the team?

Teens brag. Teens swear. Teens treat profanity -- especially when first discovering it -- like new sunglasses, amused and delighted at how cool it feels to try them on.

But just because they say dumb things to each other doesn't mean they do so in school. How many of us were terribly disrespectful to our teachers when we hung on neighborhood stoops or bicycle seats? But when we were in school, we knew how to behave.

Isn't that the same for Facebook?

A mission for the parents

Now, for those of you asking the proverbial "What about the parents?" question, you should know that Mandi's mother told the media she talked to the coach after the initial benching, but got nowhere. She said she chided her daughter. And she was quoted as saying, "That's my spot as a parent," when asked about disciplining her child.

And it is her spot. There's no law that says parents can't demand their kid's Facebook password. And Mom and Dad should be more vigilant with the Internet -- seeing it for the weapon of mass humiliation and slander that it can be.

But Mom and Dad -- not the cheering coach.

Yes, I know that in today's world, Internet postings are far more dangerous that tree-house whisperings. If a student puts on Facebook that her teacher is a neo-Nazi, it can do tremendous damage before the next sunrise.

And I know some feel that if we could crawl into the private e-mails of our teen students, we might prevent the next Columbine from happening.

But thoughts are not actions, e-mails are not deeds, and profanity is not against the law. And unless you feel that when we were kids, we should have been required to bring in our diaries and read every page to the teacher, you have to -- however begrudgingly -- side with the cheerleader in this latest sudden spotlight story.

Not for the $100 million. But for a principle worth even more. We still have the right to express ourselves on our own time in our own way. I would hope Mandi's parents would teach her that profanity is never a good idea in the public world. But the coach should be limited to the old way of punishing such offenses.

Make her write in an Internet posting 100 times, in capital letters, "I WILL NOT USE BAD WORDS (SIGNED) MANDI."

The embarrassment alone should do the trick.

(C) 2009 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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