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Louisiana House Committee Approves Bill to Protect Privacy of Online Accounts

By April 3, 2014

On Monday, Louisiana’s House Commerce Committee approved House Bill 340, which would allow employees and students within the state to maintain the privacy of their personal email and social media accounts without retaliation from their employers or schools. The bill provides important protections for the citizens of Louisiana, but adjustments to its language would substantially help in ensuring that student rights in particular are fully protected.

HB 340’s scope is broad. The bill explicitly protects employees and applicants for employment, as well as students and prospective students at every level of education, from nursery school through higher education—including public and private institutions. It provides that employers and schools may not require employees or students, respectively, to disclose usernames or passwords to personal email or social media accounts, nor may it penalize those who choose not to disclose such information. As my colleague Joe Cohn explained when reporting on a similar bill that would protect university students in Ohio, “Bills like this are necessary to ensure that students and faculty can freely communicate through electronic means without the snooping eye of university administrators.” It’s a good sign that Louisiana lawmakers are taking this step to protect student and employee privacy.

The bill has some exceptions, though, two of which could benefit from small adjustments. Per the bill, employers and schools may require access to computers, phones, and other equipment that they have paid for or to accounts used for business purposes. But the bill defines “personal online account” as an account used “exclusively for personal communications unrelated to any business purpose of the employer or educational institution” (emphasis added).

This requirement doesn’t correspond to how students actually communicate online. Few students maintain separate Facebook accounts for their personal lives and for questions and discussions about academic work. Requiring them to do so is unrealistic, burdensome, and counterproductive. If discussing school-related matters on a personal email or social media account makes that account available to administrators, students are likely to simply choose not to discuss school matters over social media or email. Whether that would-be discussion concerned classroom topics or how to enact positive changes at their institution, discouraging conversations in a popular medium is to everyone’s detriment. Students would be better protected if this provision excepted only accounts created for the purpose of completing academic work, such as accounts with Blackboard.

The bill also states that educational institutions

shall not be prohibited from … [r]estricting or prohibiting a student’s or prospective student’s access to certain websites while using an electronic communications device paid for or supplied in whole or in part by the educational institution or while using an educational institution’s network or resources, in accordance with state and federal law … .

In order to prevent administrators from exercising unfettered discretion in blocking websites that they simply don’t like or on which students are voicing opinions with which they disagree, the bill should be revised to clarify the narrow circumstances under which a website may be blocked—for example, websites that exist to facilitate criminal activity.

With these changes, the bill would be a welcome addition to laws in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico (PDF), Oregon, and Utah (PDF) that protect students using social media. HB 340 will go on to be considered by the full House, and FIRE will watch for updates. The full text of the bill is available on the Louisiana State Legislature’s website (PDF).