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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.

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