When a 16-year-old student at a San Diego high school uploaded a 10-second video to Snapchat of another student seemingly masturbating in a restroom stall, he thought he’d get a laugh from his peers. The video, shot on a smartphone, was posted to Snapchat stories and disappeared 24 hours later, but not before it went viral around the school.
Two weeks later the subject of the video – known in court documents only as Matthew B – killed himself, leaving a suicide note that read: “I can’t handle school any more and I have no friends.”
This week, a California appeals court has upheld a previous ruling that the prank was actually an invasion of privacy. The defendant, who was referred to as MH in court documents, had earlier appealed his sentencing to 60 days of probation and being barred from social media for the 2013 filming.
The video was shot in 2013 in a restroom at University City high in San Diego County. It showed a closed bathroom stall with the victim’s distinctive socks and shoes – black shoes with Adidas ankle socks – peeping out from the gap below the stall’s wall. Although it wasn’t possible to see the victim’s face, there was audible moaning accompanied by the caption: “I think this dude is jacking off”. One of Matthew’s friends would later testify that he was only pretending to masturbate.
On appeal, the defendant argued that Matthew had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the bathroom because of his distinctive footwear and audible voice, which others could have heard.
The appeals court judges disagreed: “A student in a high school bathroom stall reasonably expects he will not be videoed and have that video disseminated on social media.
“Matthew may have run the risk that people in the bathroom would tell others what they witnessed there. But that is a far cry from expecting his conduct would be electronically recorded and broadcasted to the student body.
“Thus, MH’s main appellate argument fails because the right to privacy is not one of total secrecy, but rather the right to control the nature and extent of firsthand dissemination.”
It’s not clear how many people saw the video, although MH told police he had “a lot” of Snapchat followers, but “not, like, a million”. What we do know is that Matthew’s mother said that when he went back to school the following Monday “everyone was talking about him in the video”.
The incident came to the attention of the vice-principal when, on the day of Matthew’s funeral, MH confronted another teen threatening to “kick his ass” if he continued to tell people who shot the video. The accosted teen reported MH’s threat to school officials, who in turn called the police.
MH told police “he felt terrible for what had happened” and never intended the video to cause harm, not knowing who was in the stall. Police took his phone but weren’t able to recover the video.
The judges in the appeal case did not take into consideration whether the video prompted the boy to kill himself, but they note that the suicide note said: “P.S. I’ve been planning this for months now.”
The case highlights that the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s platform – which deletes videos and photos after a set amount of time – lulls users into a false sense of security. Though police couldn’t recover the video, a witness helped them prepare a “re-creation” for the courts.
Nevertheless, this isn’t about Snapchat per se, Nicole Ozer from the American Civil Liberties Union of northern California told the Guardian. “It shows that just because something is technologically possible to do in this age does not mean you should do it or it’s legal to do.”
She argues that the case is more representative of courts “recognising that digital is different”.
“The possibility of this person being seen or overheard in the bathroom does not mean somebody can secretly record and upload information to social media. It’s recognition and greater understanding in the courts that precedent from before technology shouldn’t necessarily dictate the current reality,” she said.
This isn’t the first time that a Snapchatter has potentially fallen foul of privacy law. Last week, Playboy model Dani Mathers came under fire for body-shaming a naked woman in a gym locker room. Since sharing the photo – along with the caption “If I can’t unsee this, then you can’t either” – Mathers has been widely criticised, suspended from her job and is now facing a criminal investigation, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Snapchat declined to comment. Its community guidelines caution users against invading anyone’s privacy, and users are required to agree before they can use the service – though these type of small print user agreements are long, dull and seldom read.
“Take extra care not to violate people’s privacy in private spaces, like someone’s home, a bathroom, dressing room or locker room,” says the messaging service.
This article was written by Olivia Solon in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st July 2016 22.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010