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New law keeps student e-mails free from public examination

Apr 15, 2016 By Christina George, Staff Writer

Student e-mails are not considered public record of their school under a new law passed by the Wyoming Legislature.

This includes electronic communications between students and between a student and someone using a non-school e-mail address.

Terry Ebert, superintendent of Fort Washakie schools, applauded the new law, which becomes effective July 1.

"I think the law is appropriate in regards to students. I am the superintendent, and I am conducting public business. There's more justification for that than students who aren't doing public work," Ebert said.

The legislation amends the Public Records Act's definition of public records to exempt electronic communications of students attending the University of Wyoming, community colleges and k-12 public schools within a Wyoming school district are not a public record.

Different for officials

The e-mails of school officials, however, remain public record, as do e-mails between students and school officials. Also, e-mails between a student and an elected official, except for legislators, are public record.

State Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, is a member of the digital information privacy task force that put forth the legislation, which was ultimately sponsored by the Joint Education Committee as House Bill 13.

"I look at e-mails as being the new letters. If I write you a letter, I have an expectation of privacy that the court can't come to you and demand that letter," Case said. "Without a warrant, that is not a public record."

Case said courts have interpreted e-mails in different ways, and the bill clears up the discrepancies.

Digital information

The Wyoming Legislature addressed several other bills related to digital information when it convened for four weeks in Cheyenne.

"We continue to have every session a few bills concerning e-mail accounts," said State Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander. "It's incredible what we are doing with online issues anymore and trying to legislate fairly, and not overly legislate, but protect people."

It's not just about e-mails.

"We had a bill come through the minerals committee this year on bitcoins, and boy, did we not understand that very well," Larsen said. "I think they were good bills, but we honestly, the committee, just didn't understand the whole idea. We understand just enough to be dangerous. We killed that bill, and it will be an interim topic this year."

Bitcoins

State Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, sponsored one of the bitcoin bills, which easily passed the House of Representatives but died in the Senate.

Because the digital currency can be transferred more cheaply than wire transaction, the technology is becoming popular for businesses.

However, businesses have been forced to leave Wyoming because they have difficulties using digital currency here, Miller said. He noted one representative was informed by a digital currency company which said it no longer operates in Wyoming.

Also, citizens are using addresses in other states to keep their accounts, Miller said.

"I think it was our old school folks that a number of them didn't understand it," he said about the lack of support by legislators.

He said the bill will return to session until it passes or "if the banks go under. It's just trying to get Wyoming ahead of the curve and trying to make Wyoming a destination for businesses."

Accessing information

Lawmakers postponed a student data privacy bill prohibiting school districts from accessing students' online accounts.

Ebert said there are good and bad aspects of social media, and school administrators primarily tend to acknowledge its downsides, such as cyberbullying and sexting.

However, Ebert said he disagreed with the proposal to fine educators for trying to use the technology to prevent a fight or other incidents.

"It kind of seems counterproductive to some of the responsibilities of administrators," he said. "I think you would have to be very cautious if you would do that, but once you made a decision that it's important enough to do it, to be fined doesn't seem like the right thing. "But again, I have the perspective of the school administrator," he added.

State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton said he didn't vote for the bill because he believes there are situations when schools should have authority to access students' online information.

"I thought the bill infringed on those rights," he said.

Legislators passed SF 34, giving personal representatives, trustees, conservators and agents acting pursuant to a power of attorney of attorney access to a deceased person's online accounts.

"That's pioneering legislation in Wyoming that is probably more advanced than anywhere else," Case said.

Lawmakers also approved SF 38 requiring governmental entities to come up with a plan to protect people's data.

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