Protect studentprivacy fromschool snoopers

A state legislator has joined free-speech advocates in an effort to protect students’ private online messages from prying eyes.

Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, is drafting a bill that would prevent school officials from demanding that students turn over their usernames and passwords to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Hall plans to introduce the measure when the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes for its short session in April.

Hall held a press conference recently, joining a bipartisan movement in 16 states spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union to protect digital privacy rights. Social networks rival the school cafeteria as a meeting place for today’s teens. Adolescent gossip and intimate conversations take place online each day.

If a principal strong-arming a student into sharing passwords sounds far-fetched, look no further than the Land of Lincoln. An overzealous Illinois cyberbullying law that took effect in 2015 allows schools to demand the data if officials believe a student has broken school rules.

In March 2014, a Minnesota school district paid $70,000 in damages and revised its social media policies to settle a lawsuit brought by student Riley Stratton, whose Facebook account was searched after officials heard she had complained about a teacher’s aide. The ACLU represented Stratton in the case.

As government institutions, public schools have no business intruding in students’ personal communications. The prospect of teens’ messages being pored over in the principal’s office should infuriate parents, as their authority over their children’s online activities could be usurped without notice.

We’re encouraged to see Hall taking the lead in protecting students’ online privacy. We’re concerned, however, that his effort won’t go far enough.

An ACLU news release says Hall will draft legislation to prevent school data digs “except under a limited set of specifically defined circumstances, such as investigating specific allegations of harassment.”

That caveat appears to reconcile the privacy bill with North Carolina’s clumsily worded 2013 cyberbullying law, which could result in criminal penalties for students who post negative comments or criticize their teachers. The law’s loose language can be used to define this constitutionally protected speech as online harassment.

Analyzing a New York appellate decision in the May 2015 issue of the North Carolina Law Review, Haley E. Phillips concluded our state cyberbullying ban is likely unconstitutional because it criminalizes wide swaths of speech shielded by the First Amendment. We agree.

As cyberbullying and harassment are crimes, educators are ill-equipped to “investigate” them. Such complaints should be turned over to law enforcement officers, who would be required to obtain a search warrant signed by a judge in order to access password-protected messages.

Hall has the best of intentions, but his bill may do more harm than good if it contains a loophole wide enough for an impetuous administrator to squeeze through. It could unintentionally set a precedent for password grabs where none currently exists.

We commend Hall for starting a conversation about student privacy in the digital age. Let’s keep talking.



“Whether or not Big Brother is watching us, we certainly have to be watching him, which may be even worse.”

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