One of our most popular posts over the summer was one where we told you about a college student named Chelsea Chaney. When still a high-schooler, Chelsea posted a harmless picture of herself, in a bikini, next to a cardboard cutout of Snoop Dogg, to her Facebook page and thought nothing of it. She later found out that that photo had been seen by the director of technology for the school district where she went to high school, and used under the heading “Once It’s There, It’s There To Stay”. As we reported previously, she sued the school district for invasion of privacy and defamation, seeking $2 million. Late last month, a district court in Georgia issued its order.
The Court first addresses Chaney’s federal law claims, starting with an alleged Fourth Amendment violation:
Chaney avers that the “scheme of [co-defendant director, another district employee] and potentially other District officials” to misappropriate and then publicly display her Facebook picture represents an illegal search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. She argues that she had a reasonable expectation in the privacy of her Facebook picture, and that Cearley and the District violated this expectation when Cearley used her photo in his presentation.
This argument does not get very far. As we’ve seen before, it is held that once something is posted online, it no longer carries any expectation of privacy. Chaney’s Facebook profile allowed her picture to be viewed by Friends, and Friends of Friends.The Court reasons that, if such a large group of people could potentially look at the photo, then there can’t be any reasonable expectation. It does not matter to the court that (a) she was wearing a bikini in the picture, and (b) she was a minor when the picture was taken.
Next, Chaney makes a privacy argument using the Fourteenth Amendment:
Chaney also avers that Defendants violated her “due process-related constitutional guarantees, including her right to privacy.” She contends that “[g]overnmental misconduct that involves or results in a stranger peering without consent at an unclothed or partially clothed person is a serious invasion of privacy.” She argues that the violation was magnified when the picture was included as part of Cearley’s presentation.
Again, because the alleged harm was caused by a photograph that Chaney voluntarily put out into the word, the Court finds that her “claim is not of constitutional magnitude”, because:
the constitutional right to privacy does not include a “right to be free from public embarrassment or damage to [her] reputation.”
Chaney’s state law claims are all barred due to sovereign immunity, and so the Court grants the defendants’ motion to dismiss.
While the use of Chaney’s photo in this slideshow was monumentally ill-advised, it did not violate any laws. The take away here is the reminder that, even if a Facebook profile is super-private, if you’re sharing something with your friends, you’re potentially sharing it with the whole world.