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Maryland Passes Bill to Protect Students’ Online Privacy

By May 14, 2015

On April 10, the Maryland legislature passed legislation to protect the online privacy rights of students enrolled in institutions of postsecondary education. The law was signed by Governor Larry Hogan on May 12 and goes into effect on June 1, 2015. This is a significant step forward, as college-age students—who use social media more than most—should not be forced to share their private online information with teachers and school administrators.

The law states that institutions of postsecondary education may not:

(1) Require, request, suggest, or cause a student, an applicant, or a prospective student to grant access to, allow observation of, or disclose information that allows access to or observation of the individual’s personal electronic account;

(2) Compel a student, an applicant, or a prospective student, as a condition of acceptance or participation in curricular or extracurricular activities, to:

(i) Add to the list of contacts associated with a personal electronic account any individual, including a coach, a teacher, an administrator, another employee of the institution of postsecondary education, or a volunteer; or

(ii) Change the privacy settings associated with a personal electronic account;

(3) Take any action or threaten to take any action to discharge, discipline, prohibit from participating in curricular or extracurricular activities, or otherwise penalize a student as a result of the student’s refusal to:

(i) Grant access to, allow observation of, or disclose any information that allows access to or observation of a personal electronic account;

(ii) Add any individual to the list of contacts associated with a personal electronic account; or

(iii) Change the privacy settings associated with a personal electronic account; or

(4) Fail or refuse to admit an applicant as a result of the applicant’s refusal to:

(i) Grant access to, allow observation of, or disclose any information that allows access to or observation of a personal electronic account;

(ii) Add any individual to the list of contacts associated with a personal electronic account; or

(iii) Change the privacy settings associated with a personal electronic account.

The law makes clear that privacy protections do not apply to electronic accounts opened or controlled by a university or to information that is already available to the public. The legislation also allows students to sue for violation of this act.

John Woolums, the Maryland Association of Boards of Education’s director of governmental relations, voiced concern that the bill would make it difficult for institutions to investigate allegations of online harassment. (The original legislation applied to all educational institutions but was more narrowly confined to postsecondary institutions in committee.) But Bradley Shear, a social media privacy lawyer, responded that institutions “don’t have the obligation to become the social media police.” FIRE agrees—we’ve seen too many instances of colleges punishing students for constitutionally protected expression on social media. FIRE has also explained how many well-intentioned anti-bullying policies are too broad, violating the First Amendment.

Lastly, due to the increased use of social media as a teaching tool, the bill provides that staff may be authorized “to request a student, in order to complete an academic or career–based activity, to create a generic personal electronic account” to which the staff may have access. This allows educators to incorporate social media into their lesson plans without violating the privacy rights of its students.

Maryland has been leading efforts in recent years to protect its citizens’ online privacy rights. In 2012, for example, Maryland passed a bill to protect employees’ online privacy by prohibiting employers from requesting or demanding access to social media accounts.

As the use of online platforms continues to grow, especially among young adults, issues of online privacy for students will continue to come up. FIRE hopes to see other states follow Maryland’s lead.