A proposed California law could stop public and private colleges from requiring students to disclose their personal social media accounts, including usernames and passwords.
If the Social Media Privacy Act is signed into law, California will be the third state to adopt a more protective stance on information shared via social media.
"This information is illegal for employers and colleges to use in making employment and admission decisions and has absolutely no bearing on a person's ability to do their job or be successful in the classroom," Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) said in a news release. Yee, who wrote the bill, also supports a similar bill that will keep employers from attaining private information from social media.
Rebecca Buddingh, a recent graduate from the University of Southern California, echoed Yee's concern. Judging students by their private information is unfair, she said.
While the bill prevents colleges from penalizing students who refuse to disclose personal account information from sites like Facebook and Twitter, public information is still fair game. But Buddingh, who uses social media every day as part of her job at a Southern California PR firm, said there is a difference between public and private information online.
"Simply Google searching a prospective student is perfectly acceptable, but a university should not be allowed to access information that is meant to be private," Buddingh said.
The practice of monitoring students' private information is not uncommon in many college athletic programs.
At the University of North Carolina, each varsity team appoints one "team monitor"--a coach or administrator -- who has open access to the athletes' accounts, according to the university's newly revised social media policy.
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham defended the practice, telling the Daily Tar Heel that proper supervision is a way to uphold the integrity of the entire athletic program: "It's our ... responsibility to track down information and see if there's any potential violation."
But social media legal expert Bradley Shear believes that by taking on the role of digital watchdog, school officials are creating unnecessary legal risks.
"I do not believe that schools that require their students to provide them access to their personal electronic accounts understand the constitutional and legal liability issues involved," Shear wrote on his blog.
Beyond issues of privacy, tracking social media also can lead to discrimination or negligence lawsuits, both of which cost the college time and money to fight. For example, students could sue claiming the school did not accept them on the basis of "liking" a controversial Facebook page.
Employers take the same legal risks by monitoring their employees' online postings or asking job applicants to log into their Facebook profiles during interviews.
In a letter to the Department of Justice, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) called this practice "an unacceptable invasion of privacy." They asked for a federal investigation of the growing trend.
Both privacy bills have passed the California Senate, and are now awaiting Assembly votes and signatures by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has until the end of this month to sign them into law.