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Social Media Protection Bill Pending in Ohio

Last month, Ohio State Representatives Heather Bishoff (D) and Bob Hackett (R) introduced H.B. 424, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit both public and private universities within Ohio from demanding access to students’ and prospective students’ private, password-protected social media accounts. Bills like this are necessary to ensure that students and faculty can freely communicate through electronic means without the snooping eye of university administrators. The bill states:

Sec. 4113.37.  No educational institution shall do either of the following:

(A) Ask or require a student or prospective student to grant access to, allow observation of, or provide access information to the employee's or applicant's personal internet-based account;

(B) Expel, discipline, fail or refuse to admit, or otherwise penalize a student or prospective student for failure to grant access to, allow observation of, or provide access information to the student's or prospective student's personal internet-based account.

The bill, which also provides similar protections to employees (including university professors), does provide some exceptions, such as allowing for access when the communication device in question is partly or wholly paid for by the school, when the account is granted to the student as a function of admission to the school, or when the information in question is already available in the public domain.

One important feature of this legislation is that it creates a cause of action allowing students or faculty members whose rights under this bill have been violated to sue in state court. Courts will be empowered to issue injunctions, and they will also be able to award damages of up to $1,000 and reasonable attorneys’ fees. Before suing, aggrieved parties will have to wait 60 days to give the university an opportunity to resolve the problem. FIRE would strongly encourage Ohio legislators to amend the bill to provide that only parties seeking monetary damages need wait 60 days before filing. Students should be able to seek injunctive relief much sooner.

Similar laws have already been passed in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah. H.B. 424 has been assigned to the House Committee on Commerce, Labor and Technology. We hope the bill passes soon so that Ohio will become the ninth state to provide this sorely needed protection!

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