Legislators working with the Association of California School Administrators are backing away slowly from a bill aiming to separate schoolchildren from their phones and their privacy. The bill would have created an exception in California's privacy law, allowing teachers and school administrators to search the contents of students' phones. Courthouse News' Nick Cahill has more details:
While short in length, the bill has stature. Its 130 words would exempt students from the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, CalECPA, which was passed in 2015 with overwhelming bipartisan support in the Legislature.
“That law also specifies the conditions under which a government entity may access electronic device information by means of physical interaction or electronic communication with the device, such as pursuant to a search warrant, wiretap order, or consent of the owner of the device,” the new bill states.
This attempt to further limit students' Constitutional rights and legal protections ran into the ACLU's opposition, which noted the exception would "sledgehammer" the Fourth Amendment. Apparently, the backers of the bill thought it would sail through with a minimum of public resistance. Having failed to foresee the expected, supporters are rebranding their civil liberties sledgehammer.
“We’re making it a two-year bill, which means it’s not going to be heard next week. But the conversations are going to continue,” said Laura Preston, lobbyist for the school administrators.
Ah, the classic "wait until the noise dies down and try again" approach. It's just crazy enough it might work. I doubt the legislation itself will be rethought. More likely, the sales pitch will be altered to make the bill appear less sledgehammer-y.
Considering California is pretty much Protest Central, it's a bit stunning to read a legislator was "stunned" by collective opposition to a privacy-threatening bill. But that's exactly how the bill's author, Jim Cooper, described his reaction. The lobbyist for the schools, Laura Preston, went even further, utilizing the post-Godwin Nuclear Option rhetorical device:
“We introduced the bill to try and pull schools out of CalECPA, and you might as well have thought that we started World War III,” Preston said of the reaction.
Supporters of the bill claim the lack of an exception to the privacy law leaves administrators powerless. True, a school administrator can't seek a warrant to access the contents of a student's phone, but there are options schools can use rather than exempt every California student from the state's privacy law.
Most schools have electronic device policies that tie search consent to school attendance, which usually includes personal electronic devices along with vehicles parked on school grounds and lockers. A consensual search -- even if performed under an "implied consent" standard rather than a more affirmative version -- is still a "clean" search, though possibly one less likely to survive a courtroom challenge. Many schools also have police officers on staff. Whether or not these officers can seek warrants to access phone contents is unclear, but in cases of suspected criminal conduct, this would be turned over to law enforcement anyway.
Supporters undercut their Homeroom Apocalypse arguments with their own statements, though.
Since CalECPA was enacted, students have been refusing to hand over their cellphones to teachers and administrators, Preston said. She said teachers usually want access to cellphones to prevent cyberbullying and cheating on tests, not to delve into social media or text messages for criminal content.
I'd really like to hear how paging through some kid's phone "prevents cyberbullying." It may be used to find evidence of ongoing cyberbullying, but it's not going to head it off. If it's really bullying, there are a variety of school policies and law enforcement options available to school administrators that don't involve digging through a student's phone -- a device that will contain far, far more personal info than should be sought by administrators with zero law enforcement training or acumen.
Cheating on tests can be resolved simply by requiring phones to be secured somewhere away from the testing area, like in students' lockers or in instructors' possession until testing is complete. Digging through someone's phone might expose a cheater, but it really seems like overkill considering the privacy issues at stake. It's also not something that should involve any on-site law enforcement officers, even if their powers are slightly limited.
What is clear is "stunned" politicians and school administrators haven't given up on their dream of crushing students' Fourth Amendment protections. No doubt the ACLU -- and others -- will be keeping an eye out for Sledgehammer 2.0 later this year.