Cameras And Privacy: What Are The Issues Religious Organization Employers Should Consider?

The largest Catholic school in South Carolina was sued for $300 million for failing to protect children from being watched through large windows overlooking the boys' and girls' locker rooms.

The lawyer, who filed the suit against the school and the Diocese of Charleston, stated that the school engaged in "dishonest, deceptive and sexually abusive actions" for 21 years when it failed to protect students as they undressed in the locker rooms.

The lawsuit alleges that students and parents did not know that three four-foot square glass windows looked into one girls' locker room and two boys' locker rooms when the high school opened at his current location in 1998. The suit claims that the Catholic Diocese of Charleston and high school officials knew about the windows and failed to take action to address the issue. According to the allegations, blinds on the windows could be manipulated from within viewing rooms without the knowledge of students or tuition payers.

Nearly 700 students attended the high school during the 2020-2021 academic year. The lawyer for the plaintiffs stated that thousands of children may have been viewed through the windows while they undressed, including student athletes from other schools in the state. 

The public learned of the windows in May 2019, when the school's sports information director was arrested for voyeurism. Authorities said the man was filming male students as they changed in the locker room.

According to his affidavit, the employee recorded students by placing his phone between the blinds of his office window, which overlooked one of the boys' locker rooms. He had worked at the school for five years and was later terminated.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Charleston stated that the windows were covered shortly after the incident and later replaced with a block wall.

The Diocese of Charleston stated the suit has no merit and the windows were installed for "safety reasons" to "allow coaches to monitor for fights, bullying, smoking or any type of inappropriate activity that might occur within the locker rooms."

The Bishop of Charleston is also named as a defendant in the suit, which claims the defendants had the authority to not install the windows in the first place.

The lawsuit seeks $300 million on behalf of an unknown number of current and former students. The lawyer representing the plaintiffs is seeking class action status for the suit. Caitlin Byrd "SC's largest Catholic high school sued for $300M for invasive locker room windows" thestate.com (Feb. 04, 2021).

Commentary and Checklist

Religious organizations must protect individuals’ privacy in areas in which they have the right to expect privacy – such as restrooms and locker rooms.

In the above matter, privacy was lost because windows did not have coverings. This allowed an employee to film students without their consent and at a time when they had an expectation of privacy. 

Even authorized video cameras, like those used for security, can create a privacy exposure for religious organizations. There are some things you should keep in mind when using cameras, according to the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • Cameras should never be installed in areas where there is a "reasonable expectation of privacy," such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and changing areas.
  • Cameras should be kept in public areas such as hallways, front offices, parking lots, cafeterias, and gymnasiums.
  • Because privacy laws vary by state, it's important to consult an attorney before implementing an electronic surveillance program.
  • Post signs informing the public of the use of video surveillance on the grounds.
  • Do not use dummy cameras, as that creates a liability in the event of an attack.
  • If using video surveillance, do not record audio, as audio recording is often considered an even greater violation of privacy.
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