There are some things you won't be able to avoid when the new school year starts up. Homework. Pop quizzes. Final exams.

But one thing you shouldn’t have to do is let your school search your phone.

Under California law, school officials cannot search your phone, tablet, or laptop unless they have a search warrant, there is a legitimate emergency (like a bomb threat), or you say it’s OK. No snooping through your photos or Facebook feed to see who you dated over the summer. No poking through your text messages and email to see if you've been attending protests or organizing rallies. No looking at your location history to see where you spent your vacation. It's all off limits.

But not everyone sees it that way. School officials who have the authority to search backpacks and lockers may mistakenly believe that extends to your cell phone or laptop as well. Or your school may try to get around the law by trying to convince or force you to sign away your privacy rights.

Before we had strong privacy laws protecting both online information and electronic devices, students had their cell phones seized and searched after videotaping a campus police officer dragging a fellow student by her hair. They were searched simply because they were accused of creating a parody newsletter about their school, which is clearly protected by the First Amendment. One student was forced to allow a teacher to search through several weeks' worth of text messages just because he was late to class.

That shouldn't happen. And our law today prevents it. But we need your help to make sure the law works — and to make sure it stays in place despite efforts by school administrators to change it.

So how can you help?

  • If your school tells you they can search your phone any time they have "reasonable suspicion" that you've done something wrong, or if they try to force you to sign away your rights as a condition of fully participating in school activities), they might need a refresher course in your privacy rights. Please let us know and we'll see what we can do. You can call our Intake Line at 213-977-5253 or submit a complaint online.
  • We'd also love to learn more about your personal experience with digital searches at school. Please fill out our survey and let us know what you see.
  • And, finally, a bill to gut privacy rights for students (AB 165) is stalled but not dead. Sign our petition opposing the bill and make sure lawmakers know how much privacy means to you.

Because going back to school means giving up some things — but not your rights. That's one lesson you can learn and use before you set foot back on campus.

Visit My School My Rights for more resources about your rights in school.


Chris Conley is a technology and civil liberties policy attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.