NSA denies claims it told Alabama school district to monitor students’ social media accounts

ALABAMA — A National Security Agency spokesman has denied an Alabama superintendent’s claims that the federal intelligence organization told school district officials to monitor students’ social media activity.

“The National Security Agency has no record that it passed any information to the Huntsville School District,” NSA spokesman Michael Halbig said in an email, “and the description of what supposedly occurred is inconsistent with NSA’s practices.”

Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski told a reporter with AL.com the district launched a secret program 18 months ago to monitor students’ social media sites. The program began after someone with the NSA called the district’s security coordinator, Al Lankford, because a student made threats on Facebook, the superintendent told the news organization.

According to the school district’s website, the program, Students Against Fear, is designed to help deter or eliminate “violence and disruptive student misconduct in the schools,” particularly related to weapons and gang activity.

If the NSA learned about a potential threat, Halbig said, it would inform a federal agency that is responsible for acting on the information. Wardynski and Lankford did not return phone calls and emails requesting an interview.

“Moreover,” Halbig said, the NSA “does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs.”

Although claims the NSA recommended the student monitoring program are unusual, initiatives to monitor students’ online speech are not.

In August, for example, a New Jersey school district agreed to inform its students that it monitors social media accounts after a student sued in federal court when school administrators suspended her for criticizing the principal on Twitter. In June, an Oregon high school apologized for a policy that said student dance team members and their parents could “not participate in any negative comments either verbally or written via social media.”

Currently, 12 states have laws that say school or college officials cannot require students to provide access to social media accounts, and in some cases email accounts and other forms of electronic communication. However, these laws vary by state and most do not grant protection below the college level.

Additionally, in December, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case Elonis v. United States, involving a Pennsylvania man convicted under a federal threat-speech statute for posts on Facebook in which he fantasized in graphic terms about killing his estranged wife ane police officers. This will be the first time the nation’s highest court will consider the boundaries of free-speech protections on social networking sites.

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be contacted by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.