Illinois recently passed an anti-bullying law that some school districts are interpreting as granting some disturbing powers, according to a story at Motherboard by Jason Koebler:
School districts in Illinois are telling parents that a new law may require school officials to demand the social media passwords of students if they are suspected in cyberbullying cases or are otherwise suspected of breaking school rules.
The law, passed as HB 5707, apparently does not specifically say schools can demand student social media passwords, but school districts appear to be acting under the belief that it interacts with a bill from the previous year.
That law states that elementary and secondary schools must notify parents if they plan to ask for a password, and that it can be asked for if a student violates policy. The cyberbullying law codifies the idea that Facebook harassment is a violation of code policy, which is why you see these letters popping up.
I only glanced at the legalese briefly, but it seems to me that most of the violence to student privacy is done by the earlier law, with the more recent bill only adding the bullying element.
Edwin C. Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy for the Illinois ACLU, tells me the anti-bullying bill (which his organization supported) doesn’t actually give schools this power:
The story about the single downstate school district was, of course, disturbing. That said, that school district badly misread their authority under the new Illinois law. As the sponsor of the measure made clear in several public statements this week, the intent of the law was never to permit school districts to gather social media passwords for students. Those social media accounts would, as one might expect, include lots of personal information that the school district should not be accessing.
That hasn’t stopped Triad Community Schools Unit District #2 from putting on the jackboots:
Leigh Lewis, superintendent of the Triad district, told me that if a student refuses to cooperate, the district could presumably press criminal charges.
“If we’re investigating any discipline having to do with social media, then we have the right to ask for those passwords,” she said.
“I would imagine that turning it over to the police would certainly be one way to go. If they didn’t turn over the password, we would call our district attorneys because they would be in violation of the law,” she added. “That would only be in some cases—we’d certainly look at the facts and see what we’re dealing with before we make the decision.”
This is wrong on so many levels.
If a student is using social media to send bullying messages, investigators can read the messages from the victim’s account. And if they’re private messages that aren’t part of the harassment of the victim, then officious meddlers like Leigh Lewis have no business reading them without a warrant.
I don’t know why they think they can treat social media differently from other communication methods. If students used the U.S. Mail to send letters (as your grandparents did in olden times) schools wouldn’t be allowed to read them. Nor would they be allowed to tap students’ phones without a warrant. But somehow they think social media is different. Somehow they think digital communication is less protected. (And legally speaking, it probably is. Which is something we ought to change.)
I’ve been living life in the digital world for over thirty years, and the idea that someone could be forced to give their password to a total stranger feels like an incredible violation. The gall of these bastards. They say they’re just interested in bullying, but they want to see everything.
To a heavy user of a social media site like Facebook, letting a stranger use your account is like letting a stranger into your home. It’s like letting a stranger rifle through your wallet, dump out the contents of your purse, and paw through your underwear drawer. They’ll be able to read every message your child sent to everyone they know. In addition, they’ll also get to read every private thing that your child’s family and friends shared with them in confidence, thus violating the privacy of innocent bystanders.
With the password, school district officials could gain access to anything any of you might share over the social network — private thoughts your children shared with friends, information about medical or psychological problems of family members, titillating details of your child’s sexual experimentation, what you really think of some of your kid’s teachers, your off-the-cuff comments about your boss, a photo of that time you let them drink a beer with you, passwords to other computer systems that someone sent in a message — the list goes on and on.
And once they have the password, they will be able to assume your child’s virtual identity. (It’s probably not legal, but who would stop them?) They can delete stuff they don’t like, they can interrogate your child’s friends in the guise of your child, they can ask family members for sensitive information. Furthermore, major social media credentials often serve to control access to other web sites (e.g. “Login with your Facebook account”), giving them God-only-knows how much access into your child’s life.
I’m seething with anger over the depth of this violation of privacy. I don’t have kids, but my gut reaction is that you should respond to a school’s password demand as if they were demanding to see nude pictures of your child. If that means you punch them hard in the face again and again until they go down, and then kick them in the ribs until they cough up blood, all while reciting Jules’s “Lay my vengeance upon thee!” speech from Pulp Fiction…that would be wrong. Don’t do that. It’s a very bad idea. (But have I mentioned that this makes me angry?)
My gut also says you should tell your kid to borrow a legal strategy from Saul Goodman and repeat this key phrase: “That’s not my social media account.” Or say they can’t remember the password. Or give up the password and then change it a minute later “for security reasons.” Or give control of the account to someone outside the jurisdiction. Or…
Sadly, those are also bad ideas. Technical hacks of the law don’t work very well in the real world legal system. They may sound clever, but judges don’t have much appreciation for clever. They tend to see it as contempt or obstruction. Don’t do anything clever.
But if you have the resources, and some school authorities try to pull this shit, don’t let them get away with it. If some school employee tries this crap on you, call a lawyer. There are serious Constitutional issues here, so you might be able to get a public interest law firm to take it on for free.
But…if this makes you as angry as it does me, and you’ve just got to do something…I think there’s a pretty good argument that people with no respect for your privacy have no grounds to complain about theirs. If some school official forces your child to give up their privacy, don’t keep it a secret. Call them out on that shit. Name names. Give out contact information. To get you started, the contact page for the Triad school district is here.
(Hat tip: Robby Soave.)