Md. senate education committee hears testimony for student social media privacy bill

ANNAPOLIS, Md — Taking steps to protect students’ privacy rights online, Maryland lawmakers heard on Wednesday a bill that could prohibit school officials from digging through students’ personal social media accounts for incriminating information.

The bill, which Sen. Ronald Young introduced on Feb. 2 to prohibit school and college administrators from asking students to disclose the passwords to their personal social media accounts, met no opposition at a Senate education committee hearing.

Young’s bill expressly prohibits college athletic departments from requiring athletes to sign contracts forfeiting their social-media privacy as a condition of playing sports. University system officials attended Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee, but told the student newspaper, The Diamondback, that they were taking no position other than offering an amendment that would ensure the bill does not prevent professors and students from using social media for academic purposes.

During his testimony, Young said it’s an invasion of privacy to comb through anyone’s personal social media accounts, adding that fishing through the accounts is like listening to someone’s phone calls or reading their mail. Young said the bill would not stop school officials from monitoring students’ activity on school networks or computers.

Young’s bill protects high school and college students in both public and private institutions. Twelve states have laws protecting students’ online privacy, but most state laws only protect college students.

Bradley Shear, a privacy attorney who testified at the hearing, said he would not be comfortable if school officials asked for his children’s social media passwords, adding that the bill not only protects students’ privacy, but also the privacy of the friends and family they interact with online.

In his testimony, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said the bill could protect whistleblowers who use social media to interact with student journalists. Student journalism could be adversely affected, he said, if school officials could look through journalists’ messages and contacts to identify their sources

Young has proposed similar legislation in two previous legislative sessions. The Senate approved the proposals both times but they stalled in a House committee.

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