I saw the infamous "Mike and Ike" photo - the picture of Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins that launched the Lower Merion School District Web-camera debacle. And at the invitation of Robbins' attorney, Mark Haltzman, I also reviewed additional pictures captured by Robbins' school-issued computer.
The lawsuit filed by Haltzman over the photos and Robbins' right to privacy appears ripe for settlement. But overlooked in much of the analysis of this case was a large group of victims of privacy invasion - those with whom Robbins was communicating online.
The basic facts have been widely reported. Each high school student received an Apple laptop with a security feature to be activated in the case of a lost or stolen computer. When enabled, the feature would snap two pictures every 15 minutes: an image of whatever was in front of the Web cam (perched above the laptop's screen), and a shot of whatever was happening on that screen. Those images would then be transmitted to a school district server. The school district did not inform students or parents about the security feature.
According to Robbins, last November, Harriton assistant vice principal Lindy Matsko told Robbins that the school suspected he was engaged in improper behavior. She cited as evidence a photograph taken using the Web cam on Robbins' laptop. Matsko said it depicted him holding a pill, which Robbins said was actually a Mike and Ike candy.
In that screen grab, Robbins face is plainly visible, in a pose suggesting he is talking to someone else. He is holding something between his thumb and forefinger that might be a Mike and Ike, it looks the same size and shape. There is no way to be sure. But what's in his hand is irrelevant to the question of whether the school district was justified in creating its own reality show.
More significant were the additional images Haltzman permitted me to review. No, not the image of Robbins shirtless. Or the one in which he's asleep in front of the laptop. Most shocking were the ones showing the faces or worded Internet postings of individuals with whom Robbins was communicating.
What gave Lower Merion the right to invade the privacy of these people?
Their images represent a gross violation of privacy akin to listening in on a private telephone communication between two individuals, at least one of whom has absolutely no idea of the presence of an interloper. That's the real outrage in this case, how the privacy of innocent third parties - classmates, friends, family members, and parents - was compromised.
For example, in one image, Robbins is communicating with another young man who appears to be of similar age. Their instant chat was redacted so I could not see what they were typing to one another, but it would have been plainly evident to the school district. What I could see was the Phillies icon the other chatter was using as his on-screen moniker.
What were they saying to each other? I don't know. But I do know what I was talking about three decades ago before the advent of this technology. Girls. Sports. Teachers. Administrators. Keggers. And not necessarily in that order.
Who gave Lower Merion the right to intrude on those communications? Regardless of whether Blake Robbins stole a computer (there appears to be no evidence that he did), whether he is a problem student, whether he missed a required insurance payment, whether his parents owe Peco money, or any of the other Main Line buzz that has surrounded this case, it was inexcusable for the school district to invade the privacy of third parties en route to violating that of Blake Robbins.
"The whole problem here is that whatever was in front of that camera - even your friends who happen to be coming in that day or people who have nothing to do with the school district - could have been caught," Haltzman told me last week.
One radio listener asked me to distinguish this case from one in which a school maintains the prerogative to search a student's locker. I could easily do so. A locker is on school property, and it doesn't function like a predator drone in a student's bedroom.
A different listener had a better analogy. What if Comcast did what Lower Merion did? What if someone was delinquent with a cable payment or lost a cable box, and Comcast threw a switch and took a peek at what was going on in front of that box sitting on top of your TV? There would be hell to pay, and appropriately so.
Speaking of cable television, here is some advice for the Lower Merion School District: If you need a teen reality fix, tune in to season two of Jersey Shore. Unlike Blake Robbins, his parents, and his friends, Snooki and The Situation know they're playing to the cameras.