Newark’s ‘The Star-Ledger’ Runs Two Op-Eds on Student Rights

By April 9, 2013

Newark’s The Star-Ledger is really shining today by running two op-eds on student rights. The first piece, covered earlier today on The Torch by Will, was my op-ed explaining why Senator Frank Lautenberg’s and Congressman Rush Holt’s calls for federal higher-ed anti-bullying legislation in the wake of the Rutgers University basketball scandal were misplaced. 

The second piece, by the Student Press Law Center’s Executive Director Frank LoMonte, is titled "Learning From Rutgers Scandal and Protecting Student Whistleblowers," and also tackles the issue of legislative fixes in light of the controversy. LoMonte highlights two ways in which new laws could be adopted to help stop similar abuses much more quickly in the future (and neither of them are anti-bullying laws!).

First, LoMonte urges state legislatures to pass whistleblower protections for students, so they can shed light on issues of public concern (like student abuse) without fear of reprisal. He writes:   

California and Oregon have comprehensive anti-retaliation statutes that assure students they can speak out about the inadequacies of their schools and colleges without reprisal. Every state should enact similar common-sense safeguards, so that it doesn’t take a fired employee’s leaked video to fix the next Mike Rice situation.

Second, LoMonte calls for password protection legislation that would prevent colleges and universities from demanding access to students’ social media accounts or private emails. He explains:

This "school can do no wrong" mentality is making itself felt in a breathtaking power grab by colleges across the country. Many are ordering athletes to surrender their social-media passwords so that non­public messages on their Face­book and Twitter accounts can be monitored — or to stay off social media altogether. 

While some athletes undeniably have used social media in foolish ways (as have plenty of "responsible adults"), banning an entire medium cuts off a lifeline to the outside world — and sends the intimidating message that the only permissible opinions are school-sanitized opinions.

[...]

In the past two years, five states — New Jersey, California, Delaware, Michigan and Utah — have taken a positive first step by protecting college students (and in Michigan, students in K-12 schools as well) against intrusive demands for their social media passwords. Having a student’s private log-in information enables government officials to go witch-hunting for complainers — and invariably will intimidate would-be whistleblowers into remaining silent.

This is only a start. Schools’ overreaching goes well beyond intruding into personal Facebook messages, and students’ legal protections must catch up.

We at FIRE strongly support such measures. In fact, we have been encouraging Congress to take steps to protect student privacy in order to avoid the chilling effect that email and social media surveillance is creating on campuses across the nation. Thanks, Frank, for such a strong piece! And thank you to The Star-Ledger for publishing both op-eds!