Students in Illinois could have to hand over their social media passwords to school officials if they are suspected of cyberbullying thanks to a new online harassment law.
Illinois school officials in the Triad Community Schools district began warning parents that students may be asked to hand over their passwords to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook if they are related to or involved in cyberbullying incidents, Motherboard reported.
“If your child has an account on a social networking website, e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, ask.fm, etc., please be aware that State law requires school authorities to notify you that your child may be asked to provide his or her password for these accounts to school officials in certain circumstances,” according to a letter obtained by Motherboard.
Effective Jan. 1, the Illinois state legislature passed a new law that defined cyberbullying as carrying the same weight as it does in person. The law also tasked school administrators to thoroughly investigate cases where students being intimidated, threatened or harassed online even if the cyberbullying doesn’t happen during school hours or on school property.
The law doesn’t expressly permit schools to ask for passwords but the letter warns parents and legal guardians they could be required to grant school administrators access to private devices if there is reason to believe the student broke school policy by participating in cyberbullying behavior.
The main driver behind the new cyberbullying law is to minimize destructive behavior associated with it, including “antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, shoplifting, skipping [classes] and dropping out of school, fighting, using drugs and alcohol, sexual harassment, and sexual violence,” the Illinois General Assembly wrote in the legislation.
Online harassment takes many forms, including physical threats and stalking, and has become so common that nearly half of Americans younger than 35 have experienced it. Women, people of color and the LGBT community are at heightened risk. And victims of online harassment suffer real-life trauma, with almost a third saying they felt their lives were in danger, and vulnerable youth committing suicide because of cyberbullying.
Social media has tested the balance of protecting free expression and privacy with people’s right to not be harassed. Intense debate has ensued, as a result, over how far the government and companies should go to protect. The Illinois school district’s raises serious privacy concerns — and may be unconstitutional — potentially making students more vulnerable by stripping away their right to have private communications. Many states including Maryland have banned the practice of asking for students’ passwords. Illinois law allows the policy for elementary and secondary students but not colleges.
The Supreme Court is now hearing the case of Anthony Elonis who repeatedly made explicitly violent comments directed at his wife in the form of lyrics or poetry on Facebook. Elonis was convicted back in 2010, but if the Court rules in favor of free speech, that could make it harder to make harassers accountable, letting people speak more freely online as long as they do not have truly malicious intent. If not, it could certainly make online harassment a crime so long as a “reasonable person” doesn’t find the statements threatening.