While social media can be an effective and efficient tool to communicate with parents and other stakeholders, its role in public education has come under scrutiny in recent years and has even landed some school districts in the middle of lawsuits.
One lawsuit likely to shed some light on what school board members can and cannot do when using their social media accounts is O’Connor-Ratcliff v. Garnier. The case involves a pair of California school board members who blocked two parents on their personal social media pages.
In July 2022, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the pages were public forums much like a bulletin board or townhall meeting and that the board members’ conduct violated the parents’ First Amendment rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, which means that the ruling will become the law of the land and affect school districts in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country. Below we take a closer look at the case and offer some best practices for school districts to help them steer clear of legal trouble related to social media use.
Pages Are A Public Forum
Christopher and Kimberly Garnier had children who attended Poway Unified School District in California. Michelle O’Connor-Ratcliff and T.J. Zane created personal Facebook and Twitter accounts when they campaigned for the Poway school board and updated the accounts with their official titles after being elected. They used the accounts to post about school district news and business.
The Garniers regularly attended school board meetings and felt that their concerns about race relations in the school district were being ignored. As a result, the couple posted hundreds of repetitious comments on O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
Ultimately, the school board members blocked the Garniers for spamming the accounts, and the parents sued them for violating their free-speech rights.
In siding with the Garniers, a three-judge panel for the 9th Circuit determined that the school board members’ conduct constituted state action. The court noted that O’Connor-Ratcliff and Zane’s social media accounts contained their school board titles and that the public officials used the accounts to post school district information.
“When state actors enter that virtual world and invoke their government status to create a forum for such expression, the First Amendment enters with them,” the panel explained.
In their appeal, the school board members have asked the Supreme Court to decide whether they were acting in their official capacity when they blocked the Garniers. They stress that the school district did not create or direct content on their social media pages and that, as a result, their personal social media pages were not official school district pages.
Bottom Line for Schools
The 9th Circuit ruling only applies to school districts in California and several other states in that jurisdiction. However, while the rest of the country waits for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue, school districts can take steps to protect themselves regarding social media use and management.
First, districts should have social media policies in place that provide clear guidelines for school board members and staff, including prohibited behavior.
Additionally, they should educate school board members about acceptable social media use through trainings or workshops that teach about privacy settings, appropriate content, and potential legal risks. School board members should be reminded that their online presence reflects the school district’s values and can impact public perception.
It’s a good idea for school board members to have separate personal and professional social media accounts. They should make it clear that they are not speaking on behalf of the district when expressing personal opinions.
Lastly, school districts should monitor online activity to ensure compliance with the district’s social media policy. By reviewing posts, comments, and interactions, the district may be able to ward off any potential problems and prevent them from becoming damaging.
KingSpry is closely monitoring the O’Connor-Ratcliff case (argument has not yet been scheduled) and other cases with the potential to affect this rapidly evolving area of the law. If you have any questions or concerns about your district’s social media policy or social media use by school board members or employees, please get in touch with your school’s solicitor or one of our education attorneys.
School leaders with questions should contact their school solicitor or one of the Education attorneys at KingSpry.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. John Freund is our editor. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice.