New Ill. law would not require school districts to monitor students' social media, press association director says

ILLINOIS — A letter from the Triad School District sent a community into a frenzy last week when it notified parents of an Illinois law requiring students to hand over their social media passwords to school administrators.

Multiple news outlets and blogs jumped on the story, including St. Louis television station Fox2Now and HLN, reporting on parents’ concern over their children’s privacy.

However, these outlets cited a 2014 law and misinterpreted the year-old law and a recent amendment to the Illinois school code, said Josh Sharp, the director of government affairs for the Illinois Press Association.

“Essentially, there is no requirement in the law that was passed earlier or the new law that anybody has to hand over a password,” Sharp said. “The law requires a school district to ask that they inform a parent or guardian if they’re requesting a password. There’s no penalty for saying no.”

Last year’s law required school districts to notify parents if they ask for a social media password to investigate cyberbullying. This year, lawmakers amended the school code to include cyberbullying in the language.

Rep. Laura Fine, who proposed the bill to amend the school code, said media outlets misinterpreted the law’s intent.

“There’s nowhere in the legislation that it says everybody has to give over their social network password,” Fine said. “Your password isn’t even mentioned in the legislation.”

Sharp said he believes Triad School District misinterpreted the law as well. He said if a parent or student didn’t give school administrators access to their social media accounts, they would not violate the law.

The amendment to the school code requires school boards to establish policies about investigating cyberbullying claims “but in terms of getting someone’s password, the law only requires school districts to inform parents or guardians that they are inquiring about a password,” Sharp said.

Statutes in 12 states protect students against demands for access to their social media accounts, and in some cases email accounts and other forms of electronic communication. However, many of these laws protect only college students and leave high school students vulnerable to violations of privacy by school officials.

Policies allowing school officials to search students’ social media accounts are not uncommon.

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against a Minnesota school after administrators searched a student’s Facebook account because a parent complained the student had talked about sex with her son on the social-media platform. A settlement was reached and the school agreed to change its social media policy.

In October 2014, the ACLU of Tennessee and the Electronic Frontier Foundation called on the Williamson County School District to change its technology and internet policy, which allows administrators to examine electronic devices students bring from home and monitor communications or data transmitted on the district’s network. According to the letter, the policy violates students’ right to free speech and protection against “suspicionless searches.”