N.H. bill aims to protect students’ privacy rights online

NEW HAMPSHIRE — New Hampshire could become the next state to prohibit school employees from accessing students’ social media accounts under legislation aimed at protecting students’ online privacy rights.

The bill, which Rep. Katherine Rogers introduced on Jan. 8, would prohibit school officials from requiring or requesting students’ to disclose the usernames and passwords to their personal social media accounts.

Schools would also be unable to punish students who refuse to give access to their online accounts or refuse to admit prospective students who don’t disclose their personal information.

“It’s very much a freedom and a privacy issue,” Rogers, a Democrat, said. “When someone has gone onto social media, they have a right to expect a certain amount of privacy. They shouldn’t expect that somebody, for whatever reason, can go online and get access to any of their information.”

Twelve states have laws that say school officials cannot require students to provide access to their social media accounts.

Rogers said the bill would protect all New Hampshire students at both public and private schools. The New Hampshire bill differs from most state student privacy laws, which only protect college students.

Devon Chaffee, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire’s executive director, said this bill is an important step forward in student privacy rights.

“We have long been focused on that issue in the physical sense of a student’s physical right to privacy, even when they’re in a school setting,” Chaffee said. “Now, what we’re really turning to is ensuring that those protections are keeping pace with technology.”

Rogers also proposed the bill last year but it died in committee because the New Hampshire School Boards Association added a last-minute amendment that “stripped the bill of everything,” she said, because they were concerned it would limit schools’ ability to investigate cyberbullying cases.

Dean Michener, the director of governmental affairs of the school board association, said school boards often view students’ social media accounts to investigate cyberbullying, which is allowed under the state bullying law. He said this bill would inhibit school boards’ ability to conduct investigations.

But Rogers, a former county attorney, said she often dealt with juvenile law and prosecuted several bullying cases. She said it is not the school’s job to conduct investigations because it is not part of teachers’ training. Rogers said police investigators can get subpoenas and search warrants from non-biased judges if they need to access a social media account.

“There’s certain things you want to do during an investigation to protect the evidence so that it can be used if you need to go forth and do a criminal prosecution out of it,” Rogers said. “You want to protect the evidence so it can be used. You want to make sure the investigation is done in such a way that it’s unbiased and that it’s fair. Police are trained to do that.”

Rather “going on a fishing expedition” through students’ social media accounts, Chaffe said schools should be able to ask bullying victims to provide administrators with printed evidence of online harassment.

Rogers will present the bill to the education committee in the New Hampshire House of Representatives on Feb. 12.

“Students still have the right to protect their privacy,” Rogers said. “Just because the technology is changing, we shouldn’t change how we think.”

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