A federal judge has dropped the Fayette County School District from a $2 million lawsuit by a former student, though a school administrator still faces various charges for a 2011 incident in which the student says a bikini photo on her Facebook was used without her permission as part of a presentation given by the administrator to parents and students in the school system.
The photograph was of a family vacation in which 17-year-old Chelsea Chaney, then a student at Starr's Mill High School and now a student at the University of Georgia, was posed in a bikini next to a cardboard cut out of rapper Snoop Dogg. Chaney's attorney Pete Wellborn said that presentation given by Director of Technology Services Curt Cearley was warning students against posting questionable photos on line, and within that context Chaney's photo was used as an example of what not to put online. Wellborn said the clear intention was to depict Chaney as promiscuous and an "alcoholic."
On Sep. 30, Federal Judge Timothy Batten dropped the school district from the suit, writing "[Chaney] shared her Facebook page, which includes her pictures, not only with her friend but their friends too. By doing so, Chaney surrendered any reasonable expectation of privacy when she posted a picture of her Facebook profile, which she chose to share with the broad audience available to her."
Wellborn told the Fayette County News in June that he anticipated the school system would likely not face any liability.
"It's always an uphill battle to sue the government but you can bet your bottom dollar we'll get to a jury with Mr. Cearley," Wellborn said. "Part of Georgia's law is that in a situation like this no matter how many state laws are violated, the only possible claim you can assert against the school district is a U.S. Constitutional claim, a civil rights claim."
Wellborn and Chaney intend to go forward with their lawsuit against Cearley, which includes more serious charges like invasion of privacy and illegal search and seizure.
Chaney has said in an interview with WSBTV that she "cried a lot" over the incident and had never considered "that this could ever happen to me."
Wellborn argued that the placement of Chaney's photo in the presentation made it obvious to "any reasonable person who saw that powerpoint presentation" that Chaney was used to represent someone that should feel "mortified or embarrassed" by something they put online. In the six slide presentation there was a satirical cartoon on the slide immediately preceding the slide containing Chaney's photograph.
The cartoon is entitled 'Social Networking: Twenty Years From Now," and depicts a young girl looking at a laptop as her mother, standing nearby, drops a cup of coffee. The young girl is reading from her mother's internet profile which says "'Into bad boys, jello shooters, and body art,'... Wow Mom!... Look what's on your old Facebook Page!"
The school district has not commented on the suit and district spokesperson reiterated via e-mail on Friday that "we generally don't comment on litigation, pending or otherwise."