Md. legislator aims to protect student social media privacy

MARYLAND — A legislator who helped pave the way for online privacy protections for Maryland workers aims to establish similar safeguards for students.

Sen. Ronald Young, a Democrat, introduced a bill on Feb. 2 to prohibit school officials from requiring or asking students to give administrators access to their social media accounts.

“You’re not allowed to listen to someone else’s phone calls or read their mail, so asking them for passwords for their private accounts is a violation of the First Amendment,” Young said.

Young said the bill would cover high school and college students in both public and private institutions, adding that there are schools asking for usernames and passwords “to spy on their students, and it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Young proposed similar legislation in 2012 and 2013, but the proposals died in committee. He said he’s proposing it again because the delegate in the House of Representatives who would not let it out of committee is no longer in office.

The Maryland Senate’s education committee is scheduled to hear Young’s legislation on Feb. 18.

In 2011 Maryland became the first state to prohibit employers from requiring their employees to hand over social-media account information and passwords.

Twelve states have laws that say school officials cannot require students to grant access to their social media accounts. Most state laws only protect college students. A similar bill was introduced on Jan. 8 in New Hampshire.

John Woolums, the director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said he is concerned the bill could limit schools’ ability to investigate cyberbullying and threats of violence.

“We would be concerned if the bill were to pass and have the intended impact on our ability to maintain what we feel would be an appropriate level of access to social media, with the forefront of our concern being the safety and security of students and the school environment,” Woolums said.

Bradley Shear, a social media privacy lawyer, said the bill protects schools and colleges from potential liability because it says institutions “don’t have the obligation to become the social media police. I don’t think that school resources should go into the business to becoming the social media police.”

Young said the bill wouldn’t stop schools from monitoring what students are doing on school computers or networks, “but to ask for your password or to spy on you on your private computer is wrong.”

Although the University System of Maryland adopted a policy in 2013 with similar language as the bill, Young said he doubts the effectiveness of institutional policies.

“My bill has penalties if you violate it,” Young said. “If it’s just policy and you violate it, then so what?”

Shear said it’s important to have a law protecting student online privacy because policies generally don’t have much enforcement power and can be changed at any time.

“We’ve gone into a world of technology that frankly a lot of older people don’t understand, and they just think they should have right to look at other people’s information when I know they wouldn’t want you coming in listening to their phone calls or reading their mail,” Young said. “They shouldn’t have a right to do the same thing to you.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.