Del. Tony Wilt introduces bill to keep student records private

Following NextGen America’s requests for personal information, Republican delegate introduces bill to require students ‘opt-in’ to allow personal information to be shared

CellPhone_WikimediaCommons

NextGen America had requested the personal information, including email addresses and phone numbers, of students at universities in Virginia through the Freedom of Information Act.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Following text messages sent out by progressive political group NextGen America to students at Virginia’s public universities, Del. Tony Wilt (R-Harrisonburg) has introduced a bill to prevent public colleges from disclosing students’ information without their explicit consent.

NextGen America had requested the personal information, including email addresses and phone numbers, of students at universities in Virginia through the Freedom of Information Act. Wilt said it was important to create further clarity on laws pertaining to student records. 

“There were other institutions that chose not to [release the student data],” Wilt said. “They interpreted the same piece of code to exact opposite conclusions — so that, to me, made it even more pertinent that I carry legislation to clear up any ambiguity there may be in the code.”

Wilt’s bill requires students to “opt in” if they want to allow their information to be shared. For children under the age of 18, parents will have to state whether or not they want that information to be shared. This will reverse the current process, where the default assumes students have “opted in” and they must specifically request not to have their information shared.

“You should have a say in whether someone else releases your information,” Wilt said. 

While Wilt first saw the privacy issues with the action of NextGen America, he doesn’t want student information to be used for the political benefit of any organization.

“To me, FOIA is a tool that you would use as a reporter or other responsible party to find out information for clarity, for honesty, transparency,” Wilt said. “For me or anyone else to use FOIA to get information that would be otherwise unavailable for your own personal gain — be it political gain or business gain — I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s a proper use of FOIA.”

Adam Kimelman, a third-year College student and College Republicans chairman, said he was pleased about Wilt’s bill. 

“The election results aren’t even dry, and he’s already putting out legislation that’s going to help protect student privacy,” Kimelman said. “I am definitely very excited to see Delegate Wilt hit the ground running and propose this legislation that I hope flies through the General Assembly and I hope the Governor-elect [Ralph Northam] signs.”

Virginia Chambers, second-year College student and University Democrats Communications Coordinator, said she wanted to see a focus on other, more important, legislative issues. 

“I don’t think it’s really where legislative priorities need to be,” Chambers said. “Virginia Democrats wishes it would be more focused on things that are more important — so making sure there is consistent transparency, making sure that it is easier for people to vote, making sure we have gun control laws.”

Chambers said she wanted to see a greater focus on creating a discourse within the institutions which made students aware of how their information could be accessed, rather than changing things at a legal level.

“Having more language explaining to students why we have a directory, what the point is, and how they can opt out would be a better option,” Chambers said. “I think a big issue is students don’t know what is happening, not that what is happening is inherently wrong.”

The bill is currently pending committee referral for the 2018 legislative session beginning Jan. 10, 2018.

NextGen America did not return a request for comment.

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