Federal Court Declares University’s “Room Scans” Unconstitutional

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio issued a decision last week ruling that it was unconstitutional for a university to require a “room scan” from a student before he was allowed to take a remote chemistry test.

U.S. District Judge J. Philip Calabrese’s order may have significant impacts on how colleges are permitted to use monitoring software and equipment that has become more popular since the surge in remote education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Judge Calabrese was appointed to the court by President Donald Trump in 2020.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) wrote that room scans are a now-common requirement for administering remote exams. Students can be forced to use the camera on their desktop or laptop computer to provide a full 360-degree view of the areas surrounding a student while taking an exam.

Last week’s ruling came in a lawsuit brought by Cleveland State University student Aaron Ogletree. In February 2021, Ogletree was preparing to take a remote exam and was asked to show his proctor a room scan of his bedroom, where he had decided to take the exam.

He had concerns about surveillance of his living space and sent an email to the school’s Testing Services office to explain that he had confidential legal and tax documents scattered about his work area and did not have sufficient time to secure them and prepare for the test. He eventually complied with the room scan requirement in order to take the remote exam.

In his lawsuit, Ogletree alleged that the room scan was a violation of his rights protected by the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Cleveland State responded by arguing that even though it is a government entity, the room scans do not amount to legal “searches” covered by the Fourth Amendment. The school’s attorneys argued that the room scans are not legal searches because they are limited in scope and are necessary to ensure “academic fairness and exam integrity.”

The school also argued that its scans were brief and only revealed things in plain view in an area under the control of the student.

In ruling in the student’s favor, Judge Calabrese wrote that Ogletree’s “privacy interest in his home outweighs Cleveland State’s interests in scanning his room.” The judge ruled that leads to the conclusion that the scan is indeed a search as defined by the Fourth Amendment.

EFF Associate Director of Digital Strategy Jason Kelley praised the ruling and said that EFF hopes “more schools will recognize that just because an invasive surveillance tool exists, it isn’t necessarily helpful to education.”

It is unclear at this time whether Cleveland State will seek an appeal of the ruling in the federal court of appeals.