The next time Lower Merion school administrators want to talk to kids and parents about their laptop camera controversy, they will have to get a lawyer's blessing.
Not their own lawyers, but the ones suing them on behalf of a Harriton High sophomore, who claims the school invaded his home and his privacy by remotely snapping his image with the camera on his school laptop.
The unusual order, signed by a federal judge today, means people running the elite Lower Merion School District can't say a word about the laptop cameras or any other issues in the suit without giving the other side a copy of what they want to say - plus six hours' notice.
Such communication limits are commonplace in class-action litigation - but rare in the context of a school district at the center of what's become a nationwide controversy.
For example, it raises questions about what Lower Merion superintendent Christopher McGinley can say Tuesday night during a scheduled talk with district residents at Narberth Borough Hall, his first such town meeting since the laptop uproar began.
"You have the peculiar tension here of the district's obligation to taxpayers," said Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the former federal prosecutor hired by the district to get to the bottom of what students have dubbed "webcamgate."
Lawyer Mark S. Haltzman said he wants to make sure the district doesn't spread falsehoods about his client, 15-year-old Blake Robbins.
"We want a fair opportunity to talk to our clients," he said - meaning other students and parents who might have been affected by the laptop security program.
The court order also says the district must preserve all computer files - particularly captured images - and can't change the software on the laptops without permission.
The agreement on the order, negotiated over several hours yesterday by lawyers for the school and the Robbins family, also bars the district from remotely activating the laptops to record images or screen shots as part of the security system that officials said they disabled last week.
Federal prosecutors last week issued a subpoena for the district's records related to that system. Today, in another sign of the intensity of the furor, the U.S. Attorney and the FBI issued a rare statement confirming their inquiry into whether the snooping system broke any laws.
Usually, the Justice Department stays mum about criminal investigations, but it makes exceptions for cases that garner high publicity.
"The issues raised by these allegations are wide-ranging and involve the meeting of the new world of cyberspace with that of physical space," said Michael L. Levy, U.S. Attorney for Philadelphia.
"Our focus will only be on whether anyone committed any crimes," he said. "At this point, very few facts are known." The statement said the FBI would work with Montgomery County and Lower Merion authorities.
All 2,300 students at Lower Merion's two high schools are issued Apple MacBook laptops, complete with webcams.
Starting in 2008, the district used a remote control program to snap pictures - but only, they said, when a laptop was reported lost, missing or stolen. This feature was activated 42 times this school year, school officials said.
Last November, a Harriton assistant principal called Blake Robbins in, showed him an image captured from his laptop, and said the picture appeared to show him with drugs, according to Haltzman, the lawyer.
He said Robbins was actually holding pieces of Mike & Ike, the teen's favorite candy.
Also today, new clues surfaced in the lingering mystery of why the district remotely activated the camera in Robbins' laptop.
The district contends the Robbinses failed to pay a required $55 insurance fee - and therefore, Blake was barred from taking home a laptop. The school has a pool of "loaners" for students who haven't paid the fee or are waiting for a new laptop.
The fee question was mentioned by U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois in court yesterday, as he tried to craft a compromise between dueling versions on the order, submitted by the two sides' lawyers.
Haltzman said after the hearing that he knew of no problem with fees or permissions. The lawyer said Robbins' school laptop had broken and he took a replacement home "every single day" for a month - with no one at school objecting or reporting it missing.
"Now we hear about all these issues," Haltzman said. "He didn't do anything wrong."
The order says Robbins will turn over the laptop to a technician who will make a mirror image of its hard drive. The teen is to get a replacement laptop - as soon as school officials receive any unpaid insurance fees.