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Rights of privacy for all?

Yeah, I know I've been silent for a few days, but this article got my attention: Bad teacher. No apple.
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor on

Yeah, I know I've been silent for a few days, but this article got my attention: Bad teacher. No apple. Actually, it's worse.  Since reading it, I started thinking about privacy.  On the one hand, we cherish that privacy, but on the other, we seem to be willing to give it up in a second if it means that we walk away feeling somehow safer because we know everybody else's business -- while we ignore that fact that everyone else knows our business as well!   

In today's world, few would criticize publicizing the names of teachers who have been CONVICTED OF A CRIME -- especially a crime against a child -- but wait a minute!  This article is NOT about teachers convicted of a crime -- it is about:

posting online all disciplinary actions against teachers, reports the Charlotte Observer.

The excuse used by the South Carolina Education Department is this:

"Our goal here is to make government as transparent as possible and to ensure the public has access to as much information as possible."

Well, I don't buy it.  The goal, as I see it, is to divert attention from the shortcomings of the school district and focus on the shortcomings of individual teachers -- without regard to their ability to reach their students and to impart upon those students the skills they need in a modern world. 

The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments of the United States Constitution (found in the Bill of Rights) and the precedents built around their application over the last 218 years have always stressed a right to privacy, freedom from self-incrimnation, and guaranteed due process to all. 

In recent years, the misguided belief that the public has a 'right to know' the details about the personal lives of anyone who comes under the scrutiny of the 'free press' has led to example after example of private citizens having their names dragged through the mud -- and their careers ruined -- because they have been called 'persons of interest' by the press and the authorities.  Though never charged with a crime, and in fact in many cases completely exonorated of any wrongdoing, many of these people are never again free from the stigma of being accused.  The message for anyone who would share such personal information should be ...

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Just the other day, my Education IT colleague, Chris Dawson, wrote a nice piece about the benefits of Logins for All.  He was, of course, talking about the benefits of providing all students in a school with their own logins to the school's IT resources.  One benefit to this approach is that one student can no longer (either accidentally or intentionally) interfere with the academic progress of another.  An equally important benefit is that students are no longer in a position to accidentally (or otherwise) use institutional resources for illicit purposes without the intitution knowing the identity of the individuals involved.  So what about the student's right to privacy? 

The potential danger of this level of knowledge about a student's activity on school-owned IT resources is censorship -- or even worse -- the public humiliation of an otherwise good kid who makes an honest mistake.  We've all seen news reports lately of well-intentioned "zero-tolerance policies" (designed to keep weapons and drugs, out of our schools) being used to kick a good kid out of school because they walk into the office and turn in a pen knife (or an aspirin) they inadvertantly carried onto school property. 

While some schools are embracing today's technology, others are running away from these powerful tools.  (See School ban cellphones. Parents go wild.)  Of what are these educators (and their administrators) afraid?

Like so many schools before them, who get upset every time the student-run newspaper tries to tackle a controversial subject, today's administrators are often afraid of their own shadows.  Mediocrity is safe.  As long as unfunded mandates result in passing test scores, many school districts would rather not deal with anything new or provocative.  What a tragedy -- for our students and for ourselves!

I'll ask it again ... So what about student's right to privacy?

At the university level, the solution is simple -- because the legal status of the vast majority of college students is clear.  College students are over 18 and with a few exceptions (mostly regarding the consumption of alcohol -- and sometimes, the execution of a legal contract) they can be held legally responsible for their actions.  As such, they are also legally protected by the Constitution.  They are guaranteed the right of privacy -- which also precludes our policing their activities.  (Policies which govern behavior do not give us the right to snoop without just cause.) 

For these reasons, in addition to establishing a code of conduct for their students, the astute university establishes its own internal policies which protect, above all, the privacy of its students.  Sure, federal law already does this but establishing one's own policies insures that your faculty and staff, who may not be familiar with the subtleties of federal law, have university-wide guidelines to help them discern when they may be exceeding their authority.  Even the relatively benign activity of a systems administrator casually perusing the contents of a student's on-line files 'for fun' should be strictly forbidden. 

Finally, and this is MOST important, under no circumstances should your internal policies permit the government (be it local, state, or federal) to bypass its own obligations to povide your institution with a legally executed search warrant before any personal information about a student, or any materials residing on the IT resources provide to that student, are shared with those authorities. 

Parental objections aside, to the extent that the law permits them to do so, primary and secondary school districts, and the schools themselves, should establish the same level of protections for their students -- as well as their faculty and staff. 

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