Pennsylvania “Blake Robbins” Webcam Privacy Suit Discussed: What Good is Suing A School?

As the case of the Pennsylvania school system that allegedly spied on their students gains broader attention, the Lazy Man and Money blog raises a provocative question…why sue a school?

Lawyers and lawsuits are controversial, especially as we debate health care and malpractice reform.  I’d like to hear what you think about this. The more views the better.  (Hat tip to James Gardner of Adverlicious for pointing this one out.)

“What if the school is found guilty of all these violations?” The damages could be millions and spread across numerous families. On the outset it would seem that justice would be served and everyone could just move on. However, the community would be left with a bankrupt school system. That typically means raised taxes. So others in the town would have to pick up the pieces. This leads me to think, the ones who “win” could be the lawyers. It might even be in the community’s best interest to root for the school as outlandish as it sounds.

First, let’s recognize that all the facts of the case are not yet clear.  Above the Law reports that the student, Blake Robbins, may have posted photos taken with the webcam of his school’s computer on Facebook, and he may have made some statements about personal drug use there too. We don’t know the facts, so let’s stipulate for our discussion they are just as claimed in his complaint.

What Good is Suing a School?

What good is a lawsuit?
Have you ever been frustrated by the bureaucracy, delay, and disregard of renewing a drivers license at the state DMV in person? Imagine if the business you came to that agency to transact was far more serious to you and your family. And imagine the agency was slow or reluctant to respond.

The civil courts are like an emergency break through which the people can directly access the courts, when local or distant law officials are slow to act. Some people may complain about lawsuits, but civil justice is an override that protects the people from an non-responsive state.

Law enforcement officials could have stepped forward based on potential violations of state or  federal law. In fact, because of the lawsuit, the FBI is now investigating to see if a federal crime was committed.

Is a lawsuit  the right route?
Now that the FBI is involved, perhaps the threat of the lawsuit has done all the good it can. Not necessarily. Criminal courts often have a higher standard for conviction than a civil ruling.

But more important, criminal courts are more likely to focus on individual actors unless there was a broad criminal conspiracy. In contrast, the civil suits are more likely to focus on Lower Merion School District, which perhaps should have better considered the privacy concerns of putting webcams in homes, or better supervised their staff.

Why punish the community?
I think the civil case focuses properly on the Lower Merion School District, not individual staff. Yes, the court could find the district is liable for a widespread spying on children and their families, and the community could suffer higher taxes.   That seems just. When public officials mess up, there is a public cost.

Consider yesterday’s post which mentions that police in Boise may have sexually abused a suspect with a Taser. That also was a potential civil case. If the community elected leadership that oversaw such an abuse, it seems proper that they be reconnected to the effects of their city. Sorry tax payers, like it or not, you also own a government.

Isn’t the principle more important than the money?
Money sends a message other government agencies will understand. If it impacts public programs, then public may also hold their officials more accountable for the actions that generated such a liability. And yes, a financial award really does seem more just that sending the employees who may have done this to jail, or community service.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from watching privacy cases, it is that if private data can be abused, it eventually will be. Making breaches costly is what  drives improved standards and policy.

Why should lawyers be enriched by misfortune?
Lawyers shouldn’t be the primary beneficiaries of such cases, any more than the  patent office should be the primary beneficiary of intellectual property registration.

But the of civil courts plays a valuable role here, and it rests on lawyers. Particularly those plaintiff lawyers willing to take on cases with merit when plaintiffs may not have the wealth or experience to employ their own civil litigator. Judges and juries properly decide facts and remedies, but it is the lawyers that provide access to courts and justice.

3 Responses to "Pennsylvania “Blake Robbins” Webcam Privacy Suit Discussed: What Good is Suing A School?"

  • Lazy Man and Money

    February 23, 2010

    Thanks for linking to my article. One point that I meant to make, but failed at making, is that the winners of the lawsuit would effectively be giving up some of the money in the form of taxes.

    Think of it in an extreme case where an entire state’s government is found to be guilty of something like this. Each person in the state gets a settlement. The next year the state raises taxes because the settlement caused a budget shortfall. Everyone ends up (for the most part) giving the settlement back to the state.

    This is different than in the case where one person is wronged as in the case of the Taser example. The community does have to pick the tab in the form of higher taxes, but they weren’t the ones receiving the settlement.

    (I realize that the school is a subset of the whole city which makes my point a bit of stretch.)

  • Dave

    February 24, 2010

    Lazy Man makes a valid economic observation – if “the people sue the people” then any award is just an internal transfer.

    Or, as my friend Rick Cabral would say, “Karma is just a matter of time”.

  • ACitizen

    February 25, 2010

    Hi. Interesting commentary. Thought you’d like to see this follow-up:

    http://www.philly.com/inquirer/world_us/20100225_Laptop_family_is_no_stranger_to_legal_disputes.html

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