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One peril of Internet posting: A $2 million federal lawsuit

A lawsuit brought by former Starr’s Mill High School student Chelsea Chaney over the use of her bikini-clad photo in a Fayette County School System seminar for students, teachers and parents is headed to federal court in a $2 million lawsuit.

Though the use of her online Facebook photo in the October 2011 presentation was said to be used as a cautionary tale about the dangers of posting photos on the Internet, Chelsea maintains that the photo was used without her permission and caused her to be demeaned, degraded and ridiculed by a portion of her classmates and teachers at Starr’s Mill.

The complaint alleges the violation of Chelsea’s civil rights, the intentional infliction of emotional distress, several aspects of invasion of privacy, slander, libel and gross negligence. The complaint asks for special and general damages totaling $2 million, punitive damages and a jury trial.

School system spokesperson Melinda Berry-Dreisbach on Monday said the school system could not comment on the litigation.

Attorney Pete Wellborn on Monday said attempts by Chelsea’s parents to address the issue that stemmed from the October 2011seminar were fruitless and led to the complaint listing the Fayette County School System and Technology Services Director Curt Cearly as defendants. The complaint surrounds a topic that needs to have exposure, Wellborn said, noting Chelsea’s intent to make sure her complaint is taken seriously.

The complaint noted that Chelsea “suffered traumatic emotional harm and other damages as a result of the willful, malicious and intentional wrongful acts of Cearly.”

Now a college freshman, Chelsea at the time of the Oct. 25, 2011 seminar was a 17-year-old senior attending Starr’s Mill High School. The photo was used as part of an Oct. 25, 2011 Internet safety segment of a Community Awareness Seminar held at Starr’s Mill High. Wellborn said the event was attended by hundreds of students, parents, faculty members and citizens.

Commenting on the Internet safety slide presentation which contained Chelsea’s photo, the complaint said it was intended to underscore the public and permanent nature of the Internet and to illustrate the ways in which a person can be embarrassed and humiliated by the third-party publication of that person’s postings.

Wellborn made the point that the slide immediately preceding that of Chelsea showed a small child holding a laptop computer and addressing his mother 20 years after one of her photos had been posted online. The caption read - “Into bad boys, Jello shooters and body art. Wow, mom ... look what’s on your old Facebook page.”

“Some people have criticized Chelsea but they haven’t thought about the context,” Wellborn said.

From Wellborn’s perspective the use of that particular slide sets a contextual message for the viewer, one that, in the next slide, seemed to suggest that Chelsea was a sexually promiscuous user of alcohol.

“Incredibly, the immediately-following slide ... included a picture of a bikini-clad Chelsea standing next to a life-size cut-out of singer ‘Snoop Dogg.’ Even more incredibly, the slide included Chelsea’s full name which was clearly visible to all attendees at the seminar,” the complaint said of the photo that was taken by an adult friend of her family on a family outing during which no alcohol was present, Wellborn said Monday.

“Cearly stole Chelsea’s photograph and presented it out of context to intentionally shame and disgrace Chelsea by name in front of hundreds of her teachers, her peers, their parents and other citizens,” the attorney said.

Wellborn said the photo on Facebook was posted in semi-private form to be accessed only by “friends” and “friends of friends.”

Wellborn said Cearly posted the photo without Chelsea’s knowledge or permission and without notice to her parents. Wellborn said Cearly also violated Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities in posting the photo. Cearly also violated school system policy, the complaint said.

The complaint noted that subsequent to the seminar Chelsea was humiliated, demeaned and degraded and became the object of ridicule and scorn by a portion of her classmates and teachers. The after-effects of the seminar led to one group of teachers and students at Starr’s Mill supporting Chelsea and another group supporting the use of her photo and name having been included in the seminar, the complaint said.

In his response to the complaint, Cearly said the photo, “was available for him to view on Facebook, without restriction, as a registered member of (Facebook) after conducting a search using the name Starr’s Mill High School. (Cearly) denies that he gained access to the photo improperly or that he intended to embarrass or humiliate anyone during the presentation.”

Cearly in an Oct. 27, 2011 letter to Chelsea’s parents where he referenced his portion of the seminar said, “In order to stress the very public and permanent nature of the media, and in an attempt to make the presentation as relevant as possible, it included a photo of a Fayette County student, your daughter. Upon reflection, inclusion of the photo at the Community Awareness seminar may have made a point, it also embarrassed your family and for that I offer my humble apology. The intent was to educate, not to hurt, harm or embarrass.”

Cearly went on to apologize and to note how the photo was selected.

“... from the students I found with open profiles, I simply selected a photo at random. The embarrassment I may have caused you at school is an unintended consequence of my hasty actions. For that, I offer by apology directly to you.”

The suit maintains that the school system is also liable for Cearly’s actions.

The proceedings could have easily not ended up in court, Wellborn said Monday. Chelsea’s parents on October 2011 asked to have a school assembly to review and respect individual’s rights on the Internet. But that assembly did not occur, Wellborn said.

“Had it occurred no complaint would have been filed,” he said.

Chelsea’s parent then asked for a conference with the school system and Cearly but received no response, said Wellborn. Then in April the complaint was filed in Fayette County Superior Court, though the school system took advantage of a rule that transferred the complaint to U.S. District Court, said Wellborn.



That's why a few months later the young lady was prancing on stage in the Ms. Starr's Mill Pagent? Seems to me, life went on and she likes the spotlight. Was she embarrassed? Possibly, but don't we all get embarrassed for doing stupid things?

The kid learned a valuable lesson, the instructor appologized, end of story.

NUK_1's picture

She's mad she only has 3 or 4 naval piercings instead of 5 or 6 I guess.

YOU posted it to the learn from it and move onward with your life.

Most likely daddy is whipped by the wife and daughter.

Instead of being a strong figure and teaching his innocent daughter a lesson, he wants to line his pockets and set her up with a trust fund.

Robert W. Morgan's picture

The dope that put this presentation together might have considered the consequences of using a photo of a student from the same school for which the presentation was being prepared. That's stupid #1.

Stupid #2 is that if you are going to write a fiction (although plausible) scenario, you don't use real names. And you can find stock photos all over the internet that would have made the same point.

And he's the Director of Technology Services? Fire him and the Principal and whoever else brushed these people off. $2million is absurd, but when the world is completely upside down, I can actually see us getting tagged for this one.

Live free or die!

Why in the world would the Director of Technology not just block out her face & name? What was he thinking? Wow - a $2 million blooper. Then the family just wants a meeting & the county can't do that? She may have been in the pageant looking fine - but kids in school are cruel. They probably really gave her a lot of grief. Why did he have to pick a picture of a young teen girl in a bikini? That is going to be the $2 million question!

Yes, it was a stupid lapse of judgment. A mistake, certainly. Illegal? I don't know.

However, the instructor stood up like an adult and offered a sincere apology.

How much damage really occurred if the young lady had enough courage to perform in front of her classmates in the Miss Starrs Mill Pageant a short time later? Was she boo'd off stage?

Sure some kids can be cruel, crass, crude and mean, even at the elementary level. I know I can't insulate my kids from what others might say or do to them. I can however teach them to be confident, develop thicker skin, and learn to laugh at themselves. This goes a long way in preparing for the world ahead.

As a parent, I would be a little more leery of the "adult friend of the family" snapping photos of my belly ring flashing daughter, and the daughter for posting the photo seeking attention and comments from her friends.

One really has to question the real motives of the lawsuit. Is it a mother or father embarrassed by her daughters behavior and looking for someone else to blame? Could it be that the parents feel slighted because the school didn't grant them the satisfaction of demanding another assembly? Perhaps the family was embarrassed because they go to church with people who saw the presentation. Are they being opportunistic and looking for a trust account? Or maybe it was so traumatic to the kid and this affected her schoolwork and social life at UGA, was forced to drop out, and can not find a job and will forever be disabled due to the trauma of embarrassment.

She has been embarrassed so much that she has taken it national!!!! When will the media stop posting her picture and embarrassing her.... Does this indicate the strength of her case that they are making it a media trial instead of a court trial??? It may be worth more that $2M in her acting/modeling career.

reader's picture

It seems the FCBOE has had several opportunities to make it right but have chosen to ignore the Chaney's as if they (FCBOE) were above the law.

5.7 states "If you collect information from users, you will: obtain their consent, make it clear you (and not Facebook) are the one collecting their information, and post a privacy policy explaining what information you collect and how you will use it."

BTW, I'm sure the BOE has insurance to pay the $2M. It won't come out of the budget.

reader's picture

It seems the FCBOE has had several opportunities to make it right but have chosen to ignore the Chaney's as if they (FCBOE) were above the law.

5.7 states "If you collect information from users, you will: obtain their consent, make it clear you (and not Facebook) are the one collecting their information, and post a privacy policy explaining what information you collect and how you will use it."

BTW, I'm sure the BOE has insurance to pay the $2M. It won't come out of the budget.

Jolly for PTC Mayor's picture

The FCBOE should immediately terminate Cearly's employment. No good business owner would keep any employee that committed such gross negligence. The school system will lose in court and again have a wrecked budget...why because it is clear on facebook that no picture may be used without written permission of the original owner or another participant in the picture. He should have known this, no excuse and no second chance.

SPQR's picture

What if Mr Cearly just told his students where to go on facebook instead of just doing it for them?

Jolly for PTC Mayor's picture

that is allowed if her facebook page is open to all. But whether its facebook or anywhere else, you cannot use individuals pictures without written permission. Almost all attorneys will tell you they same.

NUK_1's picture

You think people who have their mugshots posted to all "gave written permission?" Does Obama have to give written permission any time a photo of him is used in a televised news story?

I think you had better step back here and do a little more research about what is fair use as opposed to commercial use and not make really ignorant comments on this subject.

Jolly for PTC Mayor's picture


I have done my homework, even reaching out to a local attorney for clarification. They agreed with my statements before i posted them. Yes you do have to ask to use someones picture before using it. Some people don't pursue those who do, because they don't care, but others don't and that is each individuals choice. Also, please read terms and conditions of your facebook account, Facebook requires you to seek the permission of each account holder to use their posted photos for any reason, including if their profile is open.

Mugshots are covered under open record acts and criminals do not enjoy the same exclusive rights to their use. Same as your fingerprints, if you are fingerprinted every law enforcement agency in the united states may use without a warrant or users permission.

Fair use law, per a local attorney, would not apply in this case.

Please do your own research before replying.

Have a great day

NUK_1's picture

You absolutely do not have to ask for someone's permission on a photograph before using it for non-commercial use. Any attorney who told you otherwise is a complete idiot as I have been told by two attorneys myself. Ask your alleged attorney about fair use or the Jerry Falwell vs. Hustler Magazine case. I think you might be blowing some real BS here.

As far as Facebook's guidelines, FB isn't a court of law and their "guidelines" mean absolutely nothing legally. Ooooohhhh...they might delete your account if you don't follow them, but FB has nothing to do at all with the judicial system and any of their rules are frankly meaningless besides whether you get to have a FB account or not. That's the extent of Facebook's reach on anything.

Jolly for PTC Mayor's picture

I believe you are still wrong...but in America we are each entitled to our own opinion . We will see how this turn out in the courts, unless FCBOE cops out and pays off the plaintiff.

PS She was a minor when picture was taken, and there is proof to back it up.

Mr. Jolly - you'll fit in well on PTC Council if you win. Spouting out opinions on things that you have no credibility to speak about, but acting like you do.... right on track to join the crew. Even if you're right, this is really juvenile political behavior to come on here and say something like that. Anyone who would vote for a mayoral candidate that conducts themselves in such way should just go ahead and excuse themselves from the voting polls.

Jolly for PTC Mayor's picture

Using a picture of a minor without parental consent/guardian is a crime...

Girls have enough negativity to deal with, the school just added more fuel to the fire. All of you pointing fingers at the girl and the parents, you all have 3 more fingers pointing back at yourself. I would be very upset if any image of my daughter was used without permission, particularly one that was used to put someone in a negative light in front of her peers and community. I don't care if my daughter was filled with piercings or tattoos. This girl is still a person, and deserves not to be judged. I would sue also as I have had negative dealings with FCBOE before. If she was onstage at a pageant that shows the strength in her character. You really should be pointing fingers at the person without enough common sense that put her picture up to begin with. I do not like my tax money going to this blunder its not like we weren't short millions in the budget. Oh wait FCBOE closed multiple schools to help close a $15 million budget gap... - another $2 million, plus legal fees. So much for a balanced budget.


A teenage girls father, not the one in question and a fed up tax payer...

PTC Observer's picture

you think of a way you can make some money without working for it, you decide that something that an instructor did in your past was really, really stupid, you get a lawyer, he sues for two million and you settle out of court for a fraction of the total suit.

Here's the math =


Pay the attorney a contingency of 30%
Settle for say $600K
Incidental attorney expenses = $200K
Total payments to attorney = $180K + $200K
Net $ before tax = $220

Defendant (that's us)

Defend the honor of an idiot = indefensible
Defend the honor of the county = indefensible
Pay to take this all the way to trial (and lose) = $1.2 million
Pay to take this all the way to trial (and win - LOL) = $1.2 million
Settle out of court = $600K

Looks like the attorney/plaintiff wins and we lose.

That's how it works.

First, I am appalled that an employee of the school system searched for a photo of any student and used it without permission! Elementary classroom teachers have to make sure that no photo of a student is used for anything without first having the parent/guardian's signed permission. I assumed that was policy across the system. Also, as an employee, they are not supposed to use school computers to access network social sites.
That said, I would question a family friend who would take a picture in that context of my underage daughter. Then, I would do as many parents who have access to their child's Facebook account, make sure it was taken down immediately before grandparents and other family members started calling.
What is really sad is, now whenever this is searched on Google, the photo will come up along with all the details. So, in 20 years, an explanation may have to be made to a child as to why their mother/aunt was posing for the picture in the first place.
It seems to me that more than one party should take responsibility for the embarrassment!

NUK_1's picture

Lots of errors and blame to go around here and lack of good judgment shown by more than just one or two people here. Common sense, anyone?

Mistakes all around.

At the end of the day, we are talking about embarrassment and how much it is worth.

We have all been embarrassed for doing stupid things. We have all embarrassed our spouses or kids too.

Your exactly right too questioning the parents who allow a family friend to take a bikini photo of their underage daughter and the daughter for posting on her Facebook page.

While the instructor may have had good intentions demonstrating the permanence of the internet, he used poor judgement by using a local teen as an example. However, he recognized his mistake and wrote an apology to the student and her parents. What more can he do after the fact?

At some point one has to forgive the offender and move on with your life. Is $2M, the forgiveness level for embarrasement?

If so, I probably owe my wife about $400M

RKS's picture

I have always said, if you slap it up on Facebook, be prepared for it to be public and if you post pictures of a kid in a bikini on Facebook, you are definitely going to be dealing with this kind of nonsense. If you don't want something to be public, don't slap it up on your Facebook page.

That said, this is all a result of poor judgment as the picture shouldn't have been used without permission.

What a mess. Is it worth 2 million bucks? Well, I don't know, that seems like a lot of money for someone who didn't mind posting her picture publicly on Facebook for the world to see, then upset that it landed in print material. I blame both sides.

Chelsea acted (pick your adverb: impulsively, vainly, narcissistically, stupidly, foolishly) in her Facebook posting. She then reaped the logical consequence of abandoning control of her image. What a wonderful lesson in the natural law of reaping what you sow when you act without first considering consequences!

Chelsea's helicopter parents now deny her the valuable life lesson by displacing the blame for her action onto others. Thus, instead of learning to think before acting, Chelsea learns to act impulsively and then externalize blame for her poor decisions. Chelsea is victimized twice in her own home (by herself and by her parents).

Maybe $2,000,000 worth of psychotherapy will cure her of her parents, but I doubt it. Poor Chelsea may never learn personally responsible behavior.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

And the shock value of the presentation probably saved a few stupid teens from sending risqué photos to their Facebook page, but we will never know.

mudcat's picture

is this gem -
"Chelsea’s parents on October 2011 asked to have a school assembly to review and respect individual’s rights on the Internet. But that assembly did not occur, Wellborn said.

“Had it occurred no complaint would have been filed,” he said."

Looks like some administrator at the school refused to have an assembly to address the issue and later refused to meet with the parents. I say, as a taxpayer, let's find out who failed to address this before it went to a lawsuit and fire that person. Chances are it is not the Principal, but whoever it is should have brought it to the Principal, met with the parents and called the assembly they requested. Fire him or her - along with the tech genius that doesn't understand tech and photo issues.

Not firing them means the school board - aka as Defendant" - endorses the actions of these 2 very inept employees. First question coming your way -Mary Kay and others - from the Plantif's attorney - "So, Ms. School Board member, what disciplinary action did you take against these 2 individuals?"

Not saying your wrong in your thought process, because the school should have done more. However, a school can not acquiesce to every parents demand. Endorcing an assembly to respect individuals rights on the internet is just plain stupid. What rights do you or I have on the internet? Everything we post is fair game and could come back to haunt us.

The employee made a serious mistake in judgement. They apologized to the parent and student. What more can be done except firing them if they failed to perform their job correctly? We live in FC where everyone is supposed to be church goers and the forgiving type. Or is that only until someone can profit from it?

Perhaps there is more to the story that will only be known after the trial if it goes that far.

mudcat's picture

like a private company with a CEO in charge. The school board was giving Bearden a super duper severance package while an interim superintendent was doing budget cuts and closing schools while this was going on - in other words the CEO was not paying attention.

Everybody knows the $2 million is coming from the taxpayers, so as a taxpayer I would like these people fired. That might make the school board look a little more responsible when the jury starts discussing the actual amount of the award. You know they are going to be fired after the fact - why not now? Might be better for the students if we had a tech guy who knew a bit more about the internet and a Principal who actually interacted with parents and supervised the staff.

I see your point on the assembly, but there is no excuse for not returning calls or not meeting with the parents. Fire the Principal and the tech guy now.

By the way, speaking of budget cuts - why do we need a paid school spokesperson with a hyphenated name who simply says "No comment"? Does that make any sense at all?

NUK_1's picture

It's ridiculous to do a presentation at Starr's Mill and use a current student's FB picture, along with her name and everything else. There are a gazillion other examples on Facebook tech dude could have used instead. That part was just really, really stupid. Now, is it 2mil of stupidity or even illegal? No, but it's really poor judgment and not necessary to get your point across about "internet safety" or future repercussions. The BOE may have a problem with the libel/slander part of this more than anything else.

Now, would all of this been rectified if the school had met with the parents, the student and their lawyer afterwards? I have serious doubts about that also.

A whole lot of stupid involved on both sides here.

I always stated it was poor judgement to use a local girls photo. The employee learned a lesson and apologized to the girl and her parents. I can certainly understand the motivation to make the presentation real. I also bet it stuck with some girls who, because of the reality, didn't send risqué photos to their Facebook or sent naughty photos to their boyfriends.

The article didn't state that the school didn't meet with the family. It stated they refused to meet to discuss the parents demand for an assembly and then didn't return calls to meet later.

Could it be that they explained to the parents earlier why they couldn't approve the assembly and the parents didn't want to take no for an answer? Perhaps the parents started getting rude or obnoxious? We don't know.

I do know that if it were my kid, I wouldn't be letting a family friend take a photo like that of my daughter and I wouldn't approve of my daughter placing this photo on her Facebook page. A photo like that is for attention.

Jolly for PTC Mayor's picture


Without a link to said pic. :)

NUK_1's picture

Make sure to take advantage of having your boat washed and waxed this week too as the sign says!


FayetteFlo's picture

It didn't take long. As previously stated, one google search and opening of Huffington Post and there is the bikini in all it's glory. I always tell MY kids that whatever you post is there until the end of time.

<cite>For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.</cite>

Unless the FCBOE hacked her account, it showed up somewhere where the administrator was able to get it.

Lawsuit without merit. Go away now.

I am not a lawyer, but it appears those terms apply to Facebook and their rights in relation to the use of content, not FCBOE's rights to use it. Facebook can use it, not FCBOE.

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