Rights don’t end at schoolhouse doors

First Posted: 1/30/2015

School districts in Ohio and other states should be watching Illinois with interest. At issue is the possibility of a constitutional challenge the Prairie State will face because of its new guidelines that empower schools to force a student to hand over his or her passwords to social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter if a student is using a computer to violate school rules.

It should take exactly one lawsuit for any reasonable court to determine the state’s lawmakers have overstepped their authority.

As of Jan. 1, a law signed in 2013 by then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn says school administrators have a responsibility to put into place a system for investigating bullying, including cyber-bullying, and must notify parents how it plans to investigate such reports.

This applies even if the questionable posts take place after school hours outside of the classroom.

Some have said this gives schools free reign to demand student passwords to popular social media sites the student frequents.

That’s pushing interpretation of the law a little, but it doesn’t seem such an action would be completely prohibited.

Although previous legislation in Illinois has stipulated “it is unlawful for a post-secondary school to require a student or his or her parent or guardian to provide a password or other related account information to gain access to the student’s account,” lawmakers were quick to add that does not apply “when a … school has a reasonable cause to believe that a student’s account on a social networking website contains evidence that a student has violated a school disciplinary rule or policy.”

A few school districts, such as Triad Community Unit School District 2 near St. Louis, have sent letters home to parents, cautioning that the state law could require them to ask for students to provide passwords.

Superintendent Leigh Lewis, speaking to The Washington Post, said the school district understands there are student privacy issues involved “and will not haphazardly request social media passwords unless there is a need, and will certainly involve parents throughout the process.”

Some other school officials have speculated such steps would only be necessary in the most extreme cases, say repeated cyber-bullying of another student or trying to find photographic proof that members of the football team were engaged in under-age drinking at a weekend party.

School districts should not be put in the place of parents or police, and this latest legislation pushes beyond the scope of where their responsibilities should rest.

No matter how insidious something such as cyber-bullying can be and how schools should do everything within their power to combat the problem — just as parents and other students should do — there have to be reasonable expectations of privacy for students.

There are other ways to send the message that cyber-bullying will not be tolerated.

Police could not demand a person’s password without a court order, so why should school administrators be seemingly immune to First Amendment rights to free speech or Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination?

They shouldn’t be, and we hope most schools separate themselves from this ill-fated legislation.

Students don’t give up their rights at the schoolhouse door — and they shouldn’t expect school administrators to be allowed to sidestep those rights outside of the classroom.

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