Exclusive: Illinois Law Allows Schools to Spy on Students & What the News Media Got Wrong

Exclusive: Illinois Law Allows Schools to Spy on Students & What the News Media Got Wrong

Controversy erupted this week after an Illinois elementary school sent a letter home to parents. The letter claimed that the school had the legal authority to demand students’ passwords for social networking sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, last.fm, and other popular websites. If the student was suspected of violating school procedures or disciplinary rules, the school could demand a student’s passwords.

A local news station originally reported that a new law aimed at combating cyberbullying allowed the school to demand student passwords. The information that the Fox News affiliate reported is incorrect.

The original Illinois state law, which allows schools to demand students’ passwords, was actually passed in 2013 and went into effect on January 1, 2014. The Right to Privacy in the School Setting Act (Public Act 098-0129) was originally intended to protect students’ privacy. Representative La Shawn K. Ford proposed the bill, which would have prohibited schools from demanding students’ passwords. Changes were made to the bill and enshrined into law, which allow schools to demand a student’s passwords, if there is a “reasonable cause to believe” a student’s social media accounts contain evidence that the student “has violated a school disciplinary rule or policy”. The language in the law is incredibly vague about what qualifies as “reasonable cause” to suspect a student of breaking the rules. Should dress code violators be forced to give up their Facebook and Twitter passwords for committing fashion crimes? The law’s vague language leaves it open to abuse. The letter sent by the Illinois elementary school to parents this week was a result of the 2013 law, not the new law aimed at combating cyberbullying.

“It’s unfortunate that what started out as a well-intentioned law to limit the ability of schools to pry into students’ off-campus personal lives is now being spun as a license for greater snooping”, said Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center

Last year, Illinois did pass a new law aimed at combating cyberbullying (Public Act 098-0801). On Friday, I spoke with the anti-cyberbullying law’s co-sponsor, Representative Laura Fine. She was shocked by the news media’s inaccurate reporting on the anti-cyberbullying law. Representative Laura Fine stated that the new anti-cyberbullying law has nothing to do with schools demanding students’ passwords. Before the new anti-cyberbullying law was passed, schools did not have the authority to get involved in cyberbullying that happened outside of school. The new anti-cyberbullying law expands the schools’ authority to address cyberbullying happening anywhere and involving the schools’ students.

When both the 2013 law dealing with student passwords (Public Act 098-0129) and the new anti-cyberbullying law (Public Act 98-0801) are combined, there are unintended consequences. Now that both laws are enacted, taken together the laws would allow a school to demand students’ passwords in a cyberbullying case, since schools now have authority to deal with cyberbullying, even if it occurs outside of school.

The real danger comes from the old 2013 law, The Right to Privacy in the School Setting Act (Public Act 098-0129). Without any kind of warrant or due process, the law allows schools to demand students’ passwords to their private social media accounts. If school officials ever did access a student’s social media account, it would likely violate many social media websites’ terms of service and several federal laws. While the original law was aimed at protecting student privacy; instead, the law is likely to prepare young children for a lifetime of surveillance.


Guest Author: Rachael Tackett
Rachel comes from the Occupy Movement and and is an expert in Freedom of Information Requests.

Letter sent to elementary school parents
Bill Analysis for Right to Privacy in the School Setting Act
The Right to Privacy in the School Setting Act (Public Act 098-0129)
Student Press Law Center Statement on Illinois Public Act 098-0129
Representative Laura Fine’s statement on new anti-cyberbullying law

Featured image: CC BY-SA Pieter Ouwerkerk

This article has been edited(24/01/15): missing links added and references to the local news station, a Fox-branded channel, as “Fox News” were deleted to avoid being confused with the Fox News Channel, a cable television channel.