Md. governor to consider student social-media privacy bill

MARYLAND — Three years after Maryland became the first state to protect employees’ social-media lives from their employers’ purview, it could soon become the next state to grant similar protections to students.

On Wednesday the Maryland House of Delegates voted 132-7 in favor of legislation that would prohibit college officials from requiring or asking students to hand over access to their social media accounts. Following unanimous approval in the Senate in March, the bill will become law pending Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature.

Bradley Shear, a social-media privacy lawyer who advocated for the legislation in Maryland, said he is “cautiously optimistic” Hogan, a Republican, will sign the proposal.

The legislation, which Democratic Sen. Ronald Young introduced in February, would not only protect students at public and private colleges from invasions of privacy online, but it would also protect schools from legal liability over students’ posts, Shear said. The legislation would also give students legal grounds to sue a university if officials violate the law.

“This bill is not intended to protect people from saying or doing dumb things online,” Shear said. “It’s designed to ensure that they have the same privacy protections that they have in the physical space but in the digital space.”

During a senate education committee hearing at the Maryland Capitol in February, Young equated looking through someone’s social media account to reading someone’s mail or listening to their phone calls. Young was not available to comment on the legislature approving the bill.

However, in February John Woolums, a spokesman for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, argued the rules could limit schools’ ability to investigate cyberbullying and threats of violence.

In 2011, Maryland became the first state to prohibit employers from requiring employees to provide access to social media accounts — Young was the sponsor of that legislation as well.

Twelve states have laws that say school administrators cannot require students to grant access to their social media accounts, but most of these state laws only protect college students.

If Hogan approves the rules, schools and universities would still be allowed to access information that is publicly available or accessed through their own computers or networks.

In response to concerns from the University System of Maryland, the House amended the bill to allow school officials to access students’ social-media accounts for educational purposes. For example, professors who use social media in class would not violate the law, but students must be able to create a separate account in these situations.

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

Correction (4/13/2015, 10:20 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the students who could be affected by the legislation. Following a House amendment, the bill would only affect students at public and private colleges.