California legislation aims to allow schools to search personal electronic devices

CALIFORNIA—A new bill could end the protections of the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act for members of education institutions, including students.

Assembly Bill 165 would allow schools to demand that students hand over their cellphone to government officials – not just local police, but deans, principals and campus police, too. This would consequently give these officials the right to search through all electronic communications and obtain access to private social media accounts – all without a warrant.

The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) on Jan. 13, seeks to exempt county offices of education, school districts, charter schools and any educational agency acting on their behalf from the limits imposed by the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA).

Enacted Jan. 2016, CalECPA currently prohibits a government official or member of state law enforcement from compelling the production of, or accessing, electronic communications and information without a search warrant or subpoena.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association, which worked on CalECPA, is opposing the bill. Nikki Moore, legal counsel for CNPA, stressed that CalECPA essentially clarified existing law – the Supreme Court case of Riley vs. California stated that a warrant was required to search a person’s cellphone.

“A cellphone can contain the same kind of sensitive information as the papers in someone’s home,” Moore said. “The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and this measure really flies in the face of that protection and the protection that CalECPA provides.”

Moore explained that while the school may take the position that they must act as substitute parents for students and exercise their responsibility to care for students, the Tinker v. Des Moines School District case still protects students’ constitutional rights.

“The Tinker case says that students and teachers don’t shed theair rights at the school gate. Essentially this bill is attempting to strip the students and teachers and anyone else on the campus from their right to not be searched without a warrant,” Moore said.

Chris Conley, technology and civil liberties policy attorney at ACLU of Northern California, stressed that this bill would not only impact students.

“This would affect teachers or school employees or even anyone who is a guest at a school event. Anyone acting on behalf of the school can conduct a search, whether it’s a student or someone else,” Conley said.

For any student, there are serious concerns about school or government officials having the right to search an electronic device. Conley cited examples of students using their devices to search the internet or ask family and friends about mental or physical health, or advocacy issues such as immigration reform or police brutality, as examples of legitimate questions that they may want to keep private.

“This law could now make students feel very vulnerable and expose them to searches that are digging far beyond any alleged school violation into very personal, very private details about their life,” Conley said. “Because, as we know, a cellphone or a social media account may have an enormous amount of information about individuals. It is a walking diary and then some.”

For student journalists, the case becomes more complex.

Journalists are already protected by federal law from most newsroom searches and seizures by government officials. The Privacy Protection Act prevents any government officer or employee from searching newsrooms and seizing work product or documentary material during a criminal investigation without a court order. California’s state law extends this protection beyond searches related to criminal investigations. While AB 165 cannot overturn the federal protection, there are concerns that it could cause school or campus police to believe that there is no longer such protection, since there has never been an explicit ruling about how this applies to student journalists.

“If you pass this broad exemption, you’ll have school officials and law enforcement officials who believe that those rights do not apply to students, journalists or not,” Moore said.

Conley stressed that student journalists’ privacy are particularly at risk.

“It is certainly a concern, because if you are running a student newspaper that is critical or questioning what the school authorities are doing, that certainly would make you an interesting person to find out more about your life,” Conley said. “It is another population that becomes vulnerable in the wrong situation and should have protections that are clear and written in law and not up for constant arguments that are ultimately, at best, after the fact.”

One of the main justifications for this bill is to help schools combat online bullying and harassment. Moore and Conley counter that currently under CalECPA there are still sufficient means for schools to deal with such cases. Where the case has reached the level of a crime or emergency, a school can get law enforcement involved and obtain a warrant. Where a student is being harassed or bullied, they also have the right to voluntarily show the communication from their phone to a school official or law enforcement officer.

“If there is some kind of communication that a student is pushing out that is harming other students, it is very likely that that information will be accessible through some other means than by taking a student’s phone and searching through it. There are certainly less restrictive moves they could make. This blanket exemption for the schools grants them wide power to access anyone’s cellphone on campus and it’s certainly much broader than it needs to be,” Moore said.

Conley concurred, adding that several school districts had already come up with clear policy about how to handles such situations under CalECPA.

“It allows you to investigate these instances in a pretty robust way without demanding a device that contains not only that evidence, but far more. So it’s not that this kind of case isn’t a concern, but it’s not something that trumps individual privacy in all instances. This bill simply eliminates student privacy rights under CalECPA without trying to find any kind of nuanced solution,” Conley said.

According to an article in the Elk Grove News, Cooper introduced the legislation to close a loophole that prevents schools from inspecting communications and data on tablets and computers loaned to students by the school district.

“The schools currently cannot examine the iPad to make sure students are not downloading inappropriate materials or using it to bully people,” Cooper said.

Conley explained that while the case becomes slightly more nuanced where district-owned devices are involved, students still have their fundamental expectation of privacy.

“When you give a student a device for their use, including at home and outside of educational purposes, then there is an expectation that what the student is going to do is not constantly subject to scrutiny,” Conley said.

Moore confirmed that CNPA would be working to oppose the bill, which is currently assigned to the Education Committee.

“I can’t say whether or not they will be willing to take a step back from this hard line position,” Moore said. “Certainly in the form that it’s in now, we will be working with groups to work to convince the legislature that this is a bad idea and should not be passed.”

While the ACLU of Northern California has not taken an official position on the bill at this time, Conley stressed that they were particularly concerned with the proposed bill given the national climate.

“From our perspective this is precisely the wrong time to be rolling back privacy protections, because many of our most vulnerable communities are concerned about the potential for government surveillance and access to their communications,” Conley said. “With some of the recent executive orders and other actions by this new administration, they have good reason to want privacy protections. I have not seen anything that says this is instead a time to be rolling those protections to how they were prior to CalECPA, for students or for anyone else.”

SPLC staff writer Jessica Kelham-Hohler can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Fridays about the week’s new articles.

Fill out my online form.