Maryland law grants students social media privacy rights
Beginning this week, Maryland — the same state that passed the country’s first social media privacy protection bill for employees nearly three years ago — will extend similar rights to prospective and current students attending college in the state.
Maryland Senate Bill 210, which went into effect Monday, June 1, 2015, makes it illegal for colleges and universities in Maryland to demand or require access to students’ social media accounts. It also protects colleges from legal liability over students’ online speech and grants students legal grounds to sue a college or university for violation of any mandates, according to the Student Press Law Center.
Bradley Shear, a social media privacy lawyer who advocated for the legislation, told officials at the Student Press Law Center about the motion before it was enacted in May.
“This bill is not intended to protect people from saying or doing dumb things online,” Shear said. “It’s designed to ensure that they have the same privacy protections that they have in the physical space but in the digital space.”
According to the Huffington Post, the bill was first introduced in February by Democratic Sen. Ronald Young and received immense support in both the Senate and House of Delegates. It was then signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan in mid-May along with other 350 bills.
While the law does protect students from invasions of privacy online, colleges and universities across the state still have access to information that is publicly available or accessed through university-owned computers or networks.
The law also does not prevent a student or third party from sharing information with college officials, according to WTOP.
Hunter Jefferson, a rising senior at University of Texas at Austin, says she was initially pleased to learn the law was enacted, but disliked that colleges maintained access to student information accessed through university computers or networks.
“I’m happy that college students in this state can now enjoy a greater degree of social media privacy. I wish all states would adopt more laws protecting students’ privacy,” Jefferson says. “However, I was disappointed to learn that universities are still allowed to view supposedly private information accessed through university-owned computers or networks. It is an invasion of privacy, especially when many students, including myself, use social media platforms to assist with group study.”
While Maryland served as a model for 18 other states as the first state to pass legislation protecting the social media privacy of employees in 2012, it was the 13th state to grant similar protections to students.
The original bill proposed by Sen. Ronald Young included elementary and high schools in its language; an amendment in the House of Delegates altered the legislation so as to affect college students only.
Carlos Herrera, a student at Rutgers University, says he neither fully agrees nor disagrees with the new law prohibiting colleges in Maryland from demanding access to student social media accounts, but thinks similar laws should consider students in grades K-12 in the future.
“I had been hearing about this law for quite some time…though, I am for it in some regards and against it in others,” Herrera says. “I think the law should consider everyone in the future because students at young ages need to be taught more about how to use these social media outlets as tools for success rather than have them serve as prospective ‘skeletons in the closet,’ so to speak.”
While there are still privacy issues affecting students in grades K-12, university officials researching prospective students’ accounts is a problem unique to the college community.
Former writer Christine Badowski Koenig conducted a study surveying 43 schools, colleges and universities. According to her findings, 67% of the schools admitted to Googling a prospective student and 86% admitted to researching students’ social media sites, though no evidence suggests any of the colleges or universities demanded or required access to student accounts.
While privacy is a concern for many students and individuals in regard to social media presence, others are concerned with possible consequences of the strict protection of social media privacy.
The University System of Maryland was concerned the new law could hamper university investigations into allegations of student misconduct including, sexual misconduct and academic integrity.
Colleen Brennan, an incoming freshman at Caldwell College, says she has concerns about the new law because of the possible limits it places on the state’s colleges and universities to investigate misconduct such as cyberbullying and threats of violence.
“Cyber misconduct is a huge issue…and when the social media accounts of students depict harassment, depression, illegal or unethical acts, universities have the right and responsibility to intervene,” Brennan says. “In order for universities to protect their students, it is helpful that they have access to their students’ profiles.”