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Bipartisan ‘Social Networking Online Protection Act’ Introduced in House of Representatives

By February 26, 2013

Sequestration? What’s that? FIRE spends its time monitoring the legislative branch for bills that potentially impact the rights of university students and faculty. One such bill is H.R. 537, the Social Networking Online Protection Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 6 and promptly referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Under the Social Networking Online Protection Act, which would amend Section 487(a) of the Higher Education Act of 1965, institutions of higher education would be prohibited from demanding access to students’ or potential students’ passwords for private email or social networking accounts like Twitter or Facebook. The relevant section of the bill reads:

(30)(A) The institution will not–

(i) require or request that a student or potential student provide the institution with a user name, password, or any other means for accessing a private email account of the student or potential student or the personal account of the student or potential student on any social networking website; or

(ii) discharge, discipline, discriminate against in any manner, or deny admission to, suspend, or expel, or threaten to take any such action against, any student or potential student because–

(I) the student or potential student refuses or declines to provide a user name, password, or other means for accessing a private email account of the student or potential student or the personal account of the student or potential student on any social networking website; or

(II) such student or potential student has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this paragraph or has testified or is about to testify in any such proceeding.

A separate section of the bill also addresses faculty at institutions of higher education by prohibiting employers from demanding employees’ or job applicants’ passwords for private email or social networking accounts. However, nothing in this legislation would prevent a college or university from monitoring social media accounts that have intentionally and freely been made public.

Interestingly, H.R. 537, which was introduced by Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), has at least one bipartisan cosponsor. Cosponsors include Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Janice Schakowsky (D-IL), Paul Tonko (D-NY), and Michael Grimm (R-NY). FIRE will be keeping an eye on this legislation as it progresses.