2014 Winning Essay

"Sammy Senior's Legal Woes in the Age of Social Media"

by Timothy Park
Trinity Christian School,Fairfax, VA

(1): According to Virginia statutes, Sammy Senior’s School is not within its rights to discipline Sammy based on his behavior. Virginia Code §22.1-277 essentially states two bases to discipline a student. According to Virginia Code §22.1-277 subsection A, “pupils may be suspended or expelled from attendance at School for sufficient cause.” In addition, subsection B of the same statute states that a student may be suspended if they are convicted of any felony outlined in subsection G of Virginia Code §16.1-260.

Although the School’s principal advised Sammy that “he is suspending Sammy immediately with a recommendation for expulsion,” the principal’s actions are not permitted by Virginia statutes based upon two reasons. First, it can be argued that Sammy’s actions are not “sufficient cause” for him to be disciplined. Even though Virginia statutes do not define “sufficient cause,” there are two ways to determine whether Sammy’s actions might be sufficient cause for discipline: (1) the Virginia Board of Education’s Student Code of Conduct Policy guideline and (2) case law.

In the October 2013 Virginia Board of Education’s Student Code of Conduct Policy guideline, the Board provided the standard of conduct for alcohol use, limiting its authority to school property and school activities. It is likely that Flanders County, where the School is located, follows the Board’s guideline because most county school boards in Virginia follow this guideline (See examples: Fairfax County Public Schools Student’s Rights and Responsibilities, pg 12, and Washington County Public Schools 2013-2014 Handbook and Guide, pg 17)  The incident occurred on a Saturday night and in a private apartment on the campus of Jones Community College.  It did not happen on the School’s campus, and the party was not sponsored by the School. The party had nothing to do with the School. Therefore, because Sammy did not consume alcohol on school property, a school bus, or during school activities, this is not sufficient cause to discipline Sammy.

Based on case law, Sammy cannot be disciplined because his actions have not caused a disruption to the school environment. In the case of Johnson v. Bedford County School Board (2 Virginia Circuit 110 (1983)), the petitioner was charged with murder, suspended by his county school board, and was about to be expelled. The presiding judge stated that the school board was able to expel Johnson due to the fact that his presence at his school may be a disruption to his fellow peers. Referencing §22.1-277, the judge essentially concluded that being a disruption in a school is sufficient cause for discipline. Unlike the case of Johnson, however, Sammy’s situation is different in three ways. (1) Sammy was never charged with a crime. (2) There was no evidence to prove that Sammy’s presence was the cause of any disruption. (3) If there was any disruption within the student body, such as the chatter among the students and the principal’s discussions, Sammy was not responsible for the disruption. In fact, it was Larry Logan’s actions which were the source of any disruption because he posted the video and photos of Sammy without Sammy’s consent.

Secondly, the School cannot discipline Sammy for his actions because he did not violate any of the offenses listed in subsection B of Virginia Code §22.1-277.  Subsection B references subsection G of §16.1-260. Subsection G contains a list of criminal activities; however, underage drinking is not listed as an offense.  Although Sammy may have committed a criminal activity as defined by Virginia Code §4.1-305 by allegedly drinking while underage, he cannot be suspended for his actions. Therefore, the School is not within its rights to discipline Sammy.

(2): Sammy Senior cannot sue Larry for the video that Larry had made of Sammy drinking vodka. Since the incident took place in Virginia, only torts accepted by the Commonwealth of Virginia can stand. Of the three possible legal bases for a lawsuit, none are applicable in this case.

First, the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when a plaintiff claims that someone has done something to them to inflict emotional distress (Womack v. Eldridge, 215 Va. 338 (1974)). Four elements must be met in order to meet the criteria for intentional infliction of emotional distress: that the defendant was reckless, the conduct of the defendant is intolerable in that it offends accepted standards of decency and morality, there is a causal connection between the action and the distress, and the distress is severe. (Ibid)  However, Sammy cannot sue Larry for intentional infliction of emotional distress even though Sammy is facing trouble at school because there is no evidence that Sammy is suffering any severe distress.

Second, a defamation claim involves an injury to one's reputation caused by a false statement of fact. The three elements of a defamation claim are the publication of, an actionable statement with, and requisite fault on the part of the defendant (M. Rosenberg and sons v. Craft, 182 Va. 512 (1944). Sammy cannot claim defamation because the video has no actionable statement. To be an actionable statement, the statement must have no truth. In Sammy’s situation, there is no false statement for all the video did was show what happened at the party.

Finally, there are limited forms of the tort of intrusion of privacy. Under Virginia Code §19.2-62, one cannot intentionally “use any electronic, mechanical or other device to intercept any oral communication.” Larry did use his iPhone to record the conversation between Sammy and Olivia Bellarosa without their knowledge or prior permission; however, there is an exception to the law. If there is no expectation of privacy, the oral communication is not protected under the statute. Sammy and Olivia did not make any effort to keep their conversation about drinking alcohol private. Moreover, the conversation occurred at a party attended by a number of college students and located at an apartment not owned by Sammy or Olivia. Therefore, Sammy cannot sue Larry. 

Updated: May 08, 2015