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Editorial: A sledgehammer or a scalpel?

Students at several of the commonwealth’s public universities got a surprise on their cell phones last fall: A text message urged them to register to vote, and to support the local Democrat running for the House of Delegates.

The students’ cell phone numbers were obtained through a Freedom of Information request made by NextGen Virginia, a group of left-leaning political operatives. The group obtained student directories from Virginia Tech, Radford, James Madison and VCU, among others.

The registration push worked, and many students signed up to vote. No doubt these new Virginia voters helped to contribute to the blue wave in November when the Dems made great inroads in the House.

Some students didn’t like what they saw as an intrusion, however. Some parents, who foot the bill for the phone plans, didn’t like it either.

What NextGen did was entirely legal within the Freedom of Information Act. And use of student information to sell something has been a long-standing practice. The data usually came from a printed student directory; the company seeking to use the info merely had to rekey it to create a usable database.

But several members of the House, many of them Republicans, didn’t like NextGen’s access to the database. One legislator, Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, took action.

Wilt pre-filed the very first bill of the 2018 session, House Bill 1, on Nov. 20. It’s a measure that purports to solve the problem of student data use. It’s a lot more than that.

In fact, if the old saw is true, that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, put on your best asbestos suit and pack a fan.

HB 1 flips the current system — in which a student can opt out of providing his or her information — and makes it an opt-in situation before any information can be disclosed.

The bill does not limit its restrictions to requests made for political purposes. It broadly requires written consent by a student or parent to release of info “concerning participation in athletics and other school activities, the winning of scholastic or other honors and awards, and other like information.”

In other words, if a student won the Heisman Trophy or a Rhodes Scholarship, the school would have to obtain written consent to say anything. Undoubtedly, there are further examples that would tie a school into knots.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government already has declared its opposition to HB 1, finding it way too broad. It is worth noting that currently there is no state in the union that has an opt-in scheme similar to Wilt’s proposal.

But there is an alternative already on the Assembly’s table. Just last week, Del.-elect Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, filed a bill on the topic of student information, House Bill 147.

Hurst actually was one of the candidates helped by NextGen, but he said he asked them not to use student numbers on his behalf.

HB 147 takes a more surgical approach to the student info issue; it simply proposes an addition to the list of exemptions, material that need not be produced pursuant to an FOI request. Hurst would exempt “student handheld mobile telephone numbers and student personal email addresses contained in student directories or other scholastic records.”

Such an exemption would offer protection to the students’ data.

At this point, though, one has to step back and ask, why do students need protection in the first place? Personal data has been used before, albeit from a different format.

Further, restrictions on public information and new exemptions to the FOIA should be carefully considered by the General Assembly. Yes, one could take that as a laugh line, given the Swiss cheese that the Virginia FOIA law has become. But the concern nonetheless remains valid.

A counter-argument goes something like this: New technology has made gathering lots of people’s personal information very easy. And a message sent to a cell phone is more personal than a letter appearing in the mailbox. Today’s students live on their phones and constantly are messaging.

In fact, as an indication of how widely used cell phones are, no one apparently complained about the cost of NextGen’s messages. Everyone has unlimited texts, it seems.

If the General Assembly wants to address this issue, it has two starkly different ways to solve the problem of access to student information.

It can take the sledgehammer that is Wilt’s HB 1, with likely unintended consequences.

Or it can take the scalpel that is Hurst’s HB 147, targeting the problem specifically and removing it.

This is an easy call: Advantage Hurst.