Illinois lawmakers have taken one too many steps down the wrong path in an effort to curb cyberbullying, in our opinion. A new law went into effect January 1 and parents are starting to hear the details of its terms and implementation from the schools. According to the new law, if school officials suspect that cyberbullying has taken place, and that there may be evidence of such on a private social media account, school officials can demand the user name and password even if the bullying did not happen on school grounds or on school time.
Schools are required to investigate claims, and according to an article at Motherboard, who received a copy of one district’s letter to parents:
“If there’s a disruption to school, if there are threats or discrimination of any type that fall under bullying and harassment policies we have, we have to follow through and investigate…If we’re investigating any discipline having to do with social media, then we have the right to ask for those passwords.”
According to other interviews, if the student refuses to surrender a user name and password, the incident can be referred to the police.
While we are 100% against cyberbullying (of course), this law runs contrary to a number of principles that we feel strongly about:
Children’s and teen’s privacy is very important – While a claim of cyberbullying is important, demanding that a student hand over a private password is an invasion of privacy. The police can get a warrant and view the evidence; the schools should have no such right for private messages and accounts.
The parents are being taken out of the situation – We believe that better parenting is the most important aspect of guiding good online behavior. If the schools investigate without parental involvement, or without first giving parents a chance to rectify the situation, justice is not served.
It’s against most networks’ Terms of Service – That, however, is not the biggest issue here.
This law is going to be challenged in court. According to Kade Crockford, director of Massachusetts’s American Civil Liberties Union who was quoted in the same Motherboard article:
“It’s a tragic example of government overreach—the notion that there’s a substantial difference between cyberbullying and regular bullying is confusing. Anytime a school is trying to control students’ behavior outside school, it’s a serious threat to their privacy and to their futures.”
We need the means for parents to get more involved – in a meaningful way – in teens’ internet activity, not new laws that take privacy rights away from teens. This one won’t stick, we don’t think. Hopefully the damage done in the interim will be minimal.
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