Proposed Senate bill would bolster student social media privacy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include Athletic Department comments.

In the face of social media’s rise, some lawmakers in this state are trying to strengthen the protections students have against university intrusion on their social space.

Senate Bill 210, sponsored by Sen. Ronald Young (D-Frederick), would prohibit colleges and high schools in this state from requiring students to grant them access to their online accounts. This includes forcing students to be friends with university officials on Facebook if their account is private, or handing over their username and password so that officials can access private messages.

“Everybody takes it for granted that you can’t come in and listen to my phone calls or read my mail, so why should you be able to read personal correspondence online?” Young said. “If you’re using the private computer, they’ve got no right to ask you what passwords are, what you’ve been sending in private. You’ve got a right to protect that.”

Young has introduced the bill in the last two General Assembly sessions. While it passed both times in the Senate, it has stalled twice in House of Delegates committees, preventing its passage.

Despite the bill’s lack of success, it sparked statewide discussion, and in April, the University System of Maryland adapted its policies to resemble the ones laid out in the bill. 

The major difference, in addition to not covering high schools and private universities, is that the university system’s policies don’t include punishments for violating the rule, Young said. Instead, universities must implement their own penalties for violations, but Young said institutions would have no incentive to impose penalties on themselves without external pressure.

This bill would allow students who feel the University of Maryland violated their privacy to file a civil suit against the university, receive compensation for legal fees and up to $1,000 in damages.

The bill is mainly focused on preventing coaches from monitoring student athletes’ social media accounts, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said, a practice that has grown more widespread in the past five years.

In 2011, the University of North Carolina required all sports teams to “identify at least one coach or administrator who is responsible for having access to and regularly monitoring the content of team members’ social networking sites and postings,” according to a legislative analysis of the bill. 

The NCAA encourages member institutions to monitor social media activity of student-athletes, the analysis stated. A 2014 public records audit by journalism students at this university in partnership with the Student Press Law Center, revealed that 59 of 83 universities polled restricted student athletes’ use of social media.

According to a 2012 WJLA report, some coaches at this university have previously required student athletes to be friends with them on Facebook, so their activity could be monitored.

“We understand the importance of social media and its value in communicating, networking and building a personal brand,” said Zack Bolno, spokesman for the Athletic Department. “Our expectations are for our student-athletes to be responsible and use good judgment when engaging on social media platforms.”

University system officials attended a Senate Education, Health and Environment committee hearing about the bill Wednesday. The system did not take a position on the bill, instead it chose to suggest an amendment, said MJ Bishop, director of the system’s Center for Academic Innovation.

The amendment would ensure that the policy does not prevent professors and students from using social media for academic purposes, Bishop said. 

“Increasingly, we’re using social media in classrooms and for other purposes to mentor students, and we want to make sure the bill doesn’t go so far as to make that impossible,” Bishop said.

The bill was cross-filed in the House of Delegates, and is sponsored by Del. Karen Young (D-Frederick). She said it has stalled in past years because of university security concerns, but schools should have to obtain a warrant if they want to monitor private correspondence.

“Certainly if the university has reason to believe the student is a security risk, they would need to have that access, they would have to justify that and not just have a general policy of having access to students personal accounts,” she said.

In addition to strengthening student privacy, the bill would shield universities from legal liability in cases where harm that could have been prevented by monitoring social media occurs, said Bethesda attorney Bradley Shear, who specializes in social media privacy.

“What if the school was monitoring accounts and missed something? You’re going to have someone come back and say, ‘That’s negligent social media monitoring. You should have known this student was prone to danger,’” said Shear, who testified at Wednesday’s hearing. “That’s insane. No school should ever have that legal obligation.”

Representatives from the Student Press Law Center also testified at the hearing in support of the bill, emphasizing the impact it could have on student journalists.

“When you talk about looking at contacts of someone’s social media account and looking at communications, that could really intrude on private newsgathering and whistleblowing,” LoMonte said. “It’s very common for journalists to send messages to sources and even conduct chats with them on social media, and I don’t want government officials reading those.”

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