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The Price of SnapChat

BY IN Custody

The Michigan Court of Appeals issued an interesting opinion yesterday.  As you may know, the Court of Appeals reviews a lower court’s ruling to determine whether the judge followed Michigan law.   At the trial level, one judge rules on the matter; at the Court of Appeals level, three judges review the case. 

The Court of Appeals published an opinion on September 24, 2019 reversing the trial court.  Most rulings are upheld at the Court of Appeals level.   The case before the Court of Appeals was about four girls snapchatting each other about their dislike for a boy at their school. The four girls were in sixth and seventh grade; the boy was in seventh grade.

All Court of Appeals’ opinions follow the same format: an introductory paragraph, a recitation of the facts, the applicable law and application to the instant case, and a conclusion with the Court’s ruling.   This case is different: we first receive a lesson how Snapchat works (messages vaporize after a few seconds unless they are deliberately saved or a screen shot is taken); and then, we receive a page of the texts between the girls, including actual photos that the girls sent to each other.

The girls Snapchatted each other about their dislike of the boy, and they seem to one-up each other in their snaps, getting to the point that they suggest murdering him, his dog, and his goldfish.  The boy was never invited into this Snapchat group; he was never told about the Snapchat group content.  His mother somehow found out and contacted the school principal, who confiscated the girls’ phones and who contacted law enforcement and eventually the girls were charged and convicted. 

The Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. The girls were charged because they sent Snapchat messages to “terrorize, frighten, intimidate, threaten, harass, molest or annoy” another person.  The girls never acted upon their messages; they testified that they never intended for the boy to read the messages; it was just a poor way of venting due to the boy’s irritating behavior. One of the girls, the sixth grader, testified that she did not even really know the boy but understood “that he’d given some of the other girls in the group a hard time”. The girls believed Snapchat was private. 

Because there was no evidence or reasonable interference that the girls intended to terrorize, frighten, intimidate, threaten, harass, molest or annoy the boy, the Court of Appeals set aside the girls’ convictions.

Even so, there is a lesson to be learned here for parents.  These girls were in sixth and seventh grade.  Snapchat’s rules provide that a person must be 13 or older to use the application.  It’s questionable that the sixth grader was 13.  Regardless of Snapchat’s rules, before a teenager uses social media, a parent should have a conversation with the child about the dangers of social media.  Snapchat is not necessarily private, and every teenager knows it because teenagers routinely take a screenshot of snaps. Other social media forums, such as Facebook and Instagram, even with a private setting, are often viewed by third parties by using a ‘friend’s’ sign in.  And of course, those pages can always be subpoenaed. 

Secondly, before parents allow their child to have a phone and then engage in social media, there should be rules in place that the parent has the child’s sign in information, and then the parent should review the child’s postings and messages.  Additionally, the child should not be able to install apps on their phone without a parent’s permission.  If you don’t know how to do that, a simple Google search provides easy tutorials how to set it up. 

These girls probably spent some time in juvenile detention.  They learned their lesson the very hard way because their parents failed to supervise them properly.  Let it be a lesson!