Wyoming could become one of the first states to institute broad protections for students unwilling to give school officials access to their social media accounts.
The proposal, which made its way through the state Task Force on Digital Information Privacy, now sits before the state’s joint education committee.
The degree to which school officials can monitor private social media accounts housed off school grounds has sparked a contentious national debate over where a student’s right to privacy ends and a school’s obligation to ensure security, discipline and cyber-safety begins.
The issue, which also flared up recently in Illinois, has been addressed by more than a dozen states that have some form of password-protection laws on the books—although most of these only apply to college students.
Wyoming’s bill, which applies to K-12 through post-secondary education, would make it a misdemeanor, punishable with fines ranging up to $2,000, for school officials to request a student’s personal social media user name or password without a warrant or parental permission.
If the proposal makes it out of committee, lawmakers are expected to vote on the measure in early 2016.
A similar bill which would have granted social media protections to employees was narrowly defeated in the Wyoming senate last year.
Veteran state Senator Cale Case, a longtime privacy rights advocate who supported both bills, expressed confidence that the current measure would pass. He cited the differences between students and employees arguing that “people don’t have a choice whether they are in school or not,” suggesting that student’s privacy rights should be more closely protected.
In an interview, Ken Decaria, government relations director for the Wyoming Education Association (an affiliate of the National Education Association) characterized the union’s stance as cautiously supportive of the measures “if constructed properly.”
Decaria explained that while he understood the importance of safeguarding a minor’s privacy, he did have some concerns about teachers being placed in uncomfortable positions where they might hesitate to report abuse or cyber-bullying.
Senator Case was quick to point out that often in cases of cyber-bullying, victims might voluntarily share access to their social media accounts, effectively circumventing situations where school officials are demanding access from students unwilling to compromise their data.
Ultimately, Decaria agreed. He predicted that, if it passes, the law “won’t have a big effect on how teachers do their job.”
Both Decaria and Case stressed the importance of involving parents in many of these discussions, especially in cases pertaining to minors.
Wyoming lawmakers are also considering legislation that would exclude student emails (particularly those housed on public university servers) from being considered public records, effectively shielding them from public information requests.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.