There have been a few fights at Traverse City’s East Middle School this year. The students say there was one in the cafeteria several weeks ago, another one in the 8th grade hallway in the last week, and so on. That’s not really surprising for a large middle school.
What’s surprising is that students report that school administrators have ordered students to delete any cell phone videos that they may have taken of the fights. In addition, they report that administrators have told them not to talk about the fights. They’re told if they want to talk about it, they may do so with a counselor, and that’s it.
Apparently, Traverse City East Middle School follows the first rule of fight club.
No doubt, administrators are trying to avoid videos becoming public, like they did in this episode in 2014.
So…ordering students to delete cell phone video evidence of a crime. Can they do that?
The school can look at a student’s phone in a couple of ways. First, they can look without a warrant in the event of an emergency. (Trying to cover their tracks is not an emergency.) An emergency is where someone is about to be hurt or killed and the cell phone might have information that can stop it. Obviously, video of a fight after it already happened doesn’t meet that exception.
Second, the police can look at your phone if you took video of the fight and the police get a warrant to look at the video. It’s the police that can look – not school administrators. If school administrators demand to look at your video, you can tell them that’s a hard nope and ask them if you can go back to class – even if they’re investigating a crime or a violation of school policy by another student.
Even though the police can look if they get a warrant, they can’t delete any videos. All they can do is look. If school administrators take your phone and delete a video that you took of the fight, they may be tampering with evidence, which is a crime.
Ordering students not to talk about a crime? Can they do that?
While there are some limits on the First Amendment, talking about a fight isn’t one of them. You can’t encourage people to fight or try and start a riot, but “Hey did you see what went down in the 8th grade wing” doesn’t fall into that category.
Can they order a student to delete videos if the student took the videos in violation of the school cell phone policy?
It’s true that EMS has a no cell phone policy. Students aren’t allowed to use their cell phones during the day, even to contact parents. However, if you video a fight, all they can do is punish you for violating the cell phone policy. And violating the cell phone policy isn’t a crime, so that’s where it stops. Actually, if there are students committing a crime on campus, you could make the point that there’s a necessity exception to the no cell phone rule, and you could take school administrators to task for punishing you for recording the fight.
Telling students they can’t use their cell phones at school. Can they do that?
Yes. It’s a good rule. Stop complaining.