Here’s an interesting story. Chelsea Chaney, a college student in Georgia is suing her former school district for using a photo lifted from her Facebook profile page, in a school district seminar about Internet safety. In the picture, a 17-year-old Chaney is standing in a red bikini next to a cardboard cutout of Snoop Lion (or Snoop Dogg as he was at the time). The story got quite a bit of attention last week, and the photo in question was reprinted on various websites, suggesting something of a Steisand Effect. Even so, Chaney is asking for $2 million, claiming invasion of privacy and defamation.

The image was used, under the caption “Once It’s There, It’s There To Stay’, and its use, according to the complaint, “ publicly branded the teenager as a “sexually-promiscuous abuser of alcohol who should be more careful about her Internet postings.” The school district’s director of technology apologized to Chaney and her parents, stating:

“In order to stress the public and permanent nature of the media, and in an attempt to make the presentation as relevant as possible, it included a photo of a Fayette County student, your daughter.”

“Ms. Chaney… from the students I found with open profiles I simply selected a photo at random. The embarrassment I may have caused you at school is an unintended consequence of my hasty actions. For that, I offer my apology directly to you.”

Speaking to WSB-TV, Chaney says “I cried a lot”. Her attorney claims that the image was used “out of context to suggest that Chelsea is a promiscuous abuser of alcohol.”

Chris Matyszczyk at C|Net offers some well-considered analysis:

It seems the essence of the escalation here is that Chaney was offended the school didn’t ask for her permission to use the shot. Subsequent discussions with the school clearly yielded nothing.

Still, I can’t also help wondering about the school district’s director of technology. This person chose the image to allegedly scare parents and others into talking to their wayward children about their public displays of, um, wantonness.

This seems like a perfectly innocuous image of a perfectly pleasant human being, experiencing something that might be described as “fun.”

An oft-repeated lesson here at IT-Lex is the reminder that once something is out there in the cyber ether, it’s out there forever, so be careful and responsible. Cases like this show the more worrying side of this: what happens when a perfectly benign, uncontroversial-on-its-face picture is then reused without consent? This complaint raises interesting questions about the ownership of digital images, and the ethics of using them without permission. We’ll see the way this pans out.