Robbins’ Hood

The Webcamgate controversy is a matter of class.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Mar. 9, 2010

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There’s a growing faction of Lower Merion parents pushing back against the lawsuit filed last month by the family of Webcamgate poster boy Blake Robbins. The suit accuses the school district of unlawfully spying on the 15 year old by remotely activating a laptop webcam without his or his parents’ knowledge or consent.

The parents challenging the Robbins’ litigation are affluent, educated and know how to organize. A remarkable number of Lower Merion School District parents have law degrees, and they’re wielding them like swords to fight back against what they see as a gratuitous lawsuit filed by their opportunistic neighbors.

On the surface, Webcamgate is a sharp reminder that privacy and technology will perpetually intersect in unexpected and sometimes scary ways. But it’s also a case study of how class and wealth play into that equation. Lower Merion’s affluence was the catalyst that led to the situation—the kids who need laptops live in school districts that can’t afford them—and will be the biggest factor in determining how it will end.

Last week, approximately 150 parents gathered in Narberth for a town-hall meeting of sorts. The meeting was led by a volunteer committee of four fathers of Lower Merion students, including Narberth Mayor Tom Grady, Narberth Councilman Bob Wegbreit and local lawyers Larry Silver and Michael Boni. The foursome also created as a hub for the movement (there’s also a Facebook group “Reasonable LMSD parents refusing to rush to judgment,” which had 378 members at press time.)

Attendees were well-versed in the Webcamgate controversy and its fallout. Though there are rumors swirling through neighborhoods and the Internet that, if true, would shed wild new light on the “facts” as we know them, meeting leaders asked the crowd not to “opine” on the character of the family, which has chosen to represent all of the Lower Merion School District parents by filing a class-action instead of an individual lawsuit. So far, all that’s known for sure is that Lower Merion distributed laptops to 2,300 students at Lower Merion and Harriton high schools. Last month, Michael and Holly Robbins filed a class-action suit (pending certification) against Lower Merion, its board of directors and superintendent Christopher McGinley on behalf of their son, sophomore Blake Robbins. The lawsuit claims the “invasion of Plaintiffs’ privacy, theft of Plaintiffs’ private information and unlawful interception and access to acquired and exported data and other stored electronic communications.”

The suit stems from the widely publicized incident that happened back in November when, according to Blake, Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko confronted him and said that she knew he had “engaged in improper behavior in [his] home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in [his] personal laptop issued by the school district.” The case rests on a (not yet public) picture of the teen allegedly holding or doing drugs. Robbins claims that this meeting was the first time he learned that the webcam could be remotely activated and had taken pictures of him in his bedroom. Robbins denies that he was doing drugs, saying he was eating Mike & Ikes candy in the picture.

For its part, the school district claims that the software used to remotely activate the webcams was installed solely for the purpose of locating stolen laptops. There are mixed reports as to whether Robbins’ laptop was reported stolen—some insiders allege he was not allowed to remove the computer from school property because he did not pay the insurance fee.

While the school district doesn’t deny taking remote pictures, it claims that if there was an invasion of privacy, it was an accident stemming from pioneering uncharted Fourth Amendment territory and not “conscious, intentional, wanton and malicious,” as claimed in the lawsuit. After all, LMSD was coordinating with the local police department.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that the Robbins are in debt. Despite owning a $986,000 home, they reportedly owe PECO almost $30,000 in outstanding bills, and unpaid debts to the IRS, their synagogue and their dentist. For many Lower Merion residents, the debts shed new light on Robbins’ motive for seeking punitive damages.

The meeting room was packed with approximately 150 parents. Attorney Larry Silver broke the ice by asking the crowd how many lawyers were in the house. About 30 hands shot in the air. “So how can this happen in Lower Merion?” asked Silver, who then succinctly summarized the group’s perspective.

One on hand, said Silver, “obviously there’s been a series of extraordinarily stupid” decisions on the part of the school district. But he wondered: Why didn’t the problem get solved when it came up last November instead of (literally) making a federal case out of it? On the other hand, “the school district is why many of us live in Lower Merion. It’s a great school district and we want to protect, defend and improve it, for our children, our neighbors our future. So there’s tension here.”

Despite the sometimes romantic view of Lower Merion by some residents, not all parents are so quick to believe there was no wrongdoing on the part of the school district. One woman stood up and said, “I don’t want to have everything dropped in the hopes that the school district is honest with us down the line, because that’s not ever going to happen.” While many in attendance are suspicious of the school district, they are still against the lawsuit.

By filing a class-action lawsuit, the Robbins family is requesting to represent all other parents of laptop-lugging students. These parents are not comfortable allowing the Robbins family to speak for them. Secondly, in their view, the lawsuit’s gag order on the school district means they’ll only get the so-called facts from an internal investigation. Finally, class-action lawsuits are extravagantly expensive. The parents dismiss suing your own tax-funded school district as “robbing peter to pay peter,” and argue that parents who participate in the suit would essentially be suing themselves. Boni, a class-action expert, said the cost of litigation could run “into the millions” and could last “a year or maybe two.”

Paradoxically, this group of Lower Merion parents are going to try to stop the gratuitous litigation by getting more lawyers involved. As mere citizens, they wouldn’t be able to do anything but wait to see if they were able to opt out of the action later on. As “plaintiff-interveners,” they are able to litigate an intervention that will “get us a place at the table,” according to Boni. The goal is to stop the lawsuit from becoming certified as a class action. If they succeed—and this simply becomes the Robbins’ case—the group says they may hire their own investigators to get to the bottom of what happened.

The interception of class-action certification will take a little bit of legal archery that requires esoteric skills that the lawyer-laden affluent suburb happens to have in abundance.

But what would and will happen in communities lacking such resources? For now, most communities, especially in Philadelphia, don’t have the money to purchase a laptop for each student. But as personal computer costs decrease, soon enough, more students will receive laptops and other personal devices.

As technology becomes more accessible, defending yourself from its constant invasion is becoming more complicated. Historically, literacy has always been a skill taught in selectively elite circles because those who are literate get to make the rules. In this day and age, that expands to include legal literacy. While it’s fascinating to see what a community literate in the law can do on its own behalf, it’s frightening to think what will happen in communities that aren’t so privileged. It’s a class division that’s much bigger than who has laptops and who doesn’t. ■

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Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. Anonymous said... on Mar 10, 2010 at 09:12AM

“The old joke goes:

Q. Why did New Jersey get all the toxic waste dumps and Philadelphia got all the lawyers?

A. Jersey got first choice.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Mar 10, 2010 at 08:52PM

“The school system let two information technology employees go. Obviously taking remote photos is an invasion of privacy. If others wouldn't want to join the class action lawsuit - which is entirely justified - they don't have to. Trying to derail someone else's class action suit is counter to how the law works. These other parents just don't want their property taxes going to a settlement for the obviously egregious conduct of the school in regards to these laptop photos invading people's homes.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 11, 2010 at 07:09AM

“The two information technology employees were not let go. They are on paid leave until the investigation is completed. The school district has consistently stated that there is no evidence that the technology employees did anything wrong.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 11, 2010 at 08:38AM

“There is a concept in our legal system called "presumption of innocence." There is nothing "obvious" in this case. That is an opinion, and not a fact. Many of us Lower Merion parents have decided to wait until we have facts before passing judgment. That is how Democracy works.”

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5. Another Anonymous said... on Mar 14, 2010 at 09:38PM

“Thank you , Tara Murtha! This is the most balanced and thoughtful piece covering this case I've come across in printed or electronic (TV, radio, internet) media. You truly listened at the parents' meeting and covered facts, not fantasy speculation as Dr.Phil and others chose to do.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Apr 21, 2010 at 01:45AM

“I'm sorry, but the children agreed to comply with the school guidelines. If they did nothing wrong, then they had nothing to worry about. Pictures were taken only when there was a problem. The school was merely protecting their property, I might add, paid for by us, the taxpayer. 80 activations in the course of a year is *nothing*. As for the Robbins, their son probably was doing something illegal [the drugs]. They should be grateful to the assistant principal for bringing this problem to their attention.”


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