Turn over your Facebook and Twitter passwords, please.
Just how often Maine employers and school administrators make that request is anyone’s guess, but a bill moving through the Legislature would prohibit them from doing so in most circumstances.
Such password protection bills have been enacted in more than a dozen states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The proposals are advanced by privacy advocates who hope the state-by-state strategy will lead to a comprehensive bill in Congress, where multiple attempts to pass a federal law have stalled.
The Maine bill, L.D. 1194, is sponsored by Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, who submitted it on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
Supporters of the bill say that employers and school administrators have no right to view employees’ or students’ private messages on Facebook or Twitter.
But some business groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, say the bill could have unintended consequences and prohibit employers from protecting proprietary business information or policing harassment cases.
The Maine School Management Association, which represents the state’s school administrators, opposes the bill, saying it could prevent teachers and administrators from intervening in situations where students are at risk of bullying or other serious danger.
Those arguments colored last year’s public hearing on L.D. 1194, which was carried over until this session. On Tuesday, lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee reviewed an amended version of the bill that was written to address some of the concerns raised last year.
While several lawmakers expressed a willingness to endorse the bill, they also expressed concern that it would have broad and unforeseen implications.
Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, said school officials could find it difficult to crack down on cyber-bullying.
“We’re requiring all these institutions to have a heightened standard of care,” said Crockett, an attorney. “We sue these camps and schools for not protecting children or students, but then we tie their hands when they try to protect them.”
Oami Amarasingham, of the ACLU of Maine, said the amended bill would remove only a school’s current blanket authority to demand a student’s password. If there’s a specific incident of misconduct or bullying, she said, the bill contains a provision to allow a school to access social media accounts after it contacts a parent.
Amarasingham said the law is needed because of the evolving ways that students and workers communicate.
“From our perspective, communications on the Internet are equivalent of talking on the telephone,” she said. “Schools can’t wiretap a student’s telephone if they hear that there’s bullying.”
Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, told the lawmakers that there have been instances when a school administrator has requested a student’s social media password during a bullying or harassment investigation.
“An investigation is never something that’s tidy,” said Brown. “There are times when an administrator may need access to passwords.
“Our primary goal is to keep kids safe,” she said. “We try to get parental consent, but sometimes parents have information that they know will be harmful to their kids’ reputation.”
Brown also said that penalties in the bill would be punitive for schools, which could be inundated with frivolous lawsuits. A school could be hit with a $1,000 civil penalty for requesting password information, and $2,000 for subsequent violations. Similar penalties would be assessed against employers.
In a letter to the Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Janet Mills wrote that her office has not received any complaints about seized passwords, “so we cannot confirm that there is an actual problem in Maine to be addressed by this bill.”
Also, she wrote, her office should not be assigned to enforce the law because it doesn’t have the resources to represent individual students or employees who seek damages in court.
Supporters of the bill acknowledge that they haven’t heard of any specific instance of an employer or school seizing social media passwords in Maine, but there have been multiple news accounts in other states.
In 2012, the ACLU backed a lawsuit by a 12-year-old middle school student in Minnesota after school officials searched her Facebook and private email accounts. The student was punished for statements she made about school hall monitors, who she said had been picking on her.
In 2010, The Associated Press broke the story about Robert Collins, an employee in the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Facilities.
Collins’ supervisors requested his Facebook password after he returned from a leave of absence because they wanted to check for “gang affiliations.” Collins, fearing the loss of his job, complied with the request.
Members of the Judiciary Committee were ambivalent Tuesday about L.D. 1194, with some saying it isn’t needed and others expressing a willingness to pass a narrowly tailored bill.
Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, the committee’s House chair, said he could see a bill that deals only with schools.
Linda Valentino, D-Saco, the Senate chair, said that while there don’t appear to be specific instances of seized passwords, lawmakers should stay ahead of online privacy issues.
The committee is scheduled to consider the bill, and possibly decide whether to endorse it, at a work session next Tuesday.
Congress has been reluctant to act on several password protection bills. Bills proposed in 2012 and 2013 stalled, but a new version could be considered this year.
Last year, Congress also blocked an amendment in the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act that would have prohibited U.S. employers from requiring employees to give them their social media passwords.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: