After Wyoming Senate kills student privacy bill, legislative proactivity comes into question

State senators in Wyoming last week voted to indefinitely postpone a bill that would have given students a heightened sense of digital privacy.

Senate File 20 was introduced and sponsored by the Wyoming Joint Education Interim Committee, and would have prohibited school officials from requiring access to a student’s personal digital account. The bill also included provisions prohibiting school officials from requiring students to log into personal accounts in the presence of a school employee, and from asking students for devices to inspect their contents.

School officials also would have been prohibited from disciplining students who declined to disclose personal digital information.

The Joint Education Interim Committee voted 4-1 on Jan. 12 to send the bill on to the full Wyoming Senate, where it was postponed indefinitely by a 12-18 vote.

Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, was the one ‘no’ vote when the bill was in committee. He questioned the necessity of the bill, saying there had been no questions raised or incidents regarding student digital privacy in the state.

This attitude is emblematic of many laws, or lack thereof, relating to issues of student privacy. To say privacy legislation isn’t necessary until an incident catalyzes a response highlights the overarching issue with state legislatures: a tendency to be reactive instead of proactive.

This was the second consecutive year a privacy bill had been drafted, Wasserburger said — last year’s bill passed the Senate but failed the House.

Wasserburger also cited the need for principals to move quickly in the modern world in terms of combatting bullying and promoting a positive culture in schools.

“It’s a huge change from what we’ve done in our schools in years past,” he said. “Essentially what that bill would’ve done is give students full Fourth Amendment rights and required principals to get search warrants to look at [student’s] phones, which I think would’ve caused a backlog in the judicial system.”

The debate over school cellphone searches has been ongoing in the legal system for years. In 2009, a Safford Unified School District v. April Redding Supreme Court decision concluded that school searches can go too far if there are no reasonable grounds for suspicion.

There is somewhat of a gray area between a school’s authority and a student’s privacy, which is why laws protecting digital privacy are necessary. New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan have actually passed similar laws within the last several years, bringing the number of states with some form of privacy protection to 15. The protections mostly cover students in college, but some states have extended the protection to K-12 students as well.

The intention of digital privacy laws is not to backlog a judicial system by flooding it with requests, but rather to preemptively protect a student’s right to not have to hand over social media logins and cell phones without proper justification to do so.

This becomes relevant to student media, who may face confiscation of their mobile devices in the course of their reporting. Additionally, the prevalence of social media as a reporting tool – from live-tweeting to Periscope to Snapchat – has increasingly blurred the lines in publishing news.

WIthout clear-cut limits on school authority, the instinct to restrict publishing can easily migrate to restricting stories posted on social media, regardless of whether they were reported on school grounds or during official instruction time.

Despite this, Wasserberger said he hoped Wyoming wouldn’t see privacy legislation on the legislative docket any time soon.

“I’m hoping this is the last time we see it,” he said.