News of a shared Dropbox folder featuring compromising photographs of teenage girls in Burrillville is a sort of nightmare scenario for parents with young daughters. Saying that much shouldn’t be controversial. But this paragraph in Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article raises a more-contentious point that even had us arguing among ourselves in the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity:
Vice Principal David Alba notified police on May 25 about the discovery of an “online school Dropbox” that showed graphic images of several girls at the high school, according to an affidavit supporting a search warrant. A boy at the school gave the administration a link to the Dropbox, which was turned over to the police.
Depending how Mr. Alba gained access to the folder, he may have broken Rhode Island law, because Rhode Island General Law 16-103 makes it illegal for any “private or public institution that offers participants, students, or trainees an organized course of study or training that is academic, technical, trade-oriented, or preparatory for gainful employment” to:
(1) Require, coerce, or request a student or prospective student to disclose the password or any other means for accessing a personal social media account;
(2) Require, coerce, or request a student or prospective student to access a personal social media account in the presence of the educational institution’s employee or representative; or
(3) Require or coerce a student or prospective student to divulge any personal social media account information.
In this case, a “social media account” would include any “electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online service or accounts, or internet website profiles or locations,” which would seem plainly to cover Dropbox. It would also plainly prevent Alba from asking for a password, asking for the student to share the folder with him, or asking the student to open the folder in his presence.
This legislation became law in 2014 as S2094 and H7124, sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Representative Brian Patrick Kennedy, respectively. The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity graded the bills with a positive 1 (out of 3) at the time, although my own initial score was -1.
My thinking at the time was that, as wary as I am of government’s invading people’s privacy, this legislation is simply too broad. The inclusion of private institutions was the final negative factor, in my review. (Why shouldn’t a private institution be able to require compliance with a social media code under any circumstances whatsoever?) But even focusing merely on the public-sector aspect of the law, it seems unnecessarily broad.
Basically, this is the state saying that no community can choose, through its local school system, to accept this sort of intrusion to solve any problem whatsoever, perhaps entirely unique to its circumstances — even if the school attempts to work collaboratively with parents to resolve some problem.
Well, now we have an example of one such problem in Burrillville. It’s entirely possible that Mr. Alba is not aware of the law; it’s also possible that at no time during his interaction with any students did he ask to see anything, merely letting the confession(s) wash over him. If not, if he did “request” access in any degree, and if the aftermath of the revelation becomes messy, the district may find itself subject to lawsuits from the students who had access to the Dropbox folder.
If any students are prosecuted, we may very well see their lawyers going after the school district either to have evidence thrown out of court or to gain some financial compensation for their clients. There is no exception to the law that protects the district if it does, indeed, uncover illegal activity.
If something like this does occur, we can be sure that future school administrations will be much more wary of tracking down these problems, which means the harmful behavior will continue along until law enforcement finds out, somehow. That possibility actually points to the worst aspect of this law: With no threat of discovery through their schools, students may not be fortunate enough to be stopped before they do something truly harmful and truly criminal.
I wouldn’t want a law granting districts (or private schools, for that matter) access to social media accounts, but to categorically ban it takes away our right to form our laws at the local level, even in a private contract between a family and a private institution, very possibly to the detriment of our children.