The Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation Wednesday to shield students’ personal contact information after a political group used cellphone numbers to urge college students to vote in last year’s election.
The Republican-controlled chamber voted 62-35 to approve House Bill 1, with 35 Democrats voting against the legislation and 12 Democrats voting for it.
The Roanoke Times and other media outlets reported last year that progressive group NextGen Virginia, an offshoot of Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer’s NextGen America, used the state’s Freedom of Information Act to obtain thousands of student cellphone numbers from Virginia Tech and Radford University. The group then sent the students mass text messages about voter registration.
“Protecting personal student information is more important than furthering any political campaign, political activist group or marketing effort,” said Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, the bill’s patron.
Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University also provided student contact information NextGen requested under FOIA.
Wilt’s bill originally would have simply exempted the sensitive student info from FOIA, but the legislation was changed to instead modify state laws dealing with scholastic records. The bill would require K-12 schools, colleges and universities to obtain written consent from a student or parent before directory information could be released to a third party.
Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, a beneficiary of NextGen’s get-out-the-vote efforts, introduced a similar bill to exempt student cell numbers and email addresses from FOIA. Hurst’s bill died last month in a subcommittee on a 5-3, party-line vote.
Hurst voted against Wilt’s bill. In an interview, he said the K-12 provisions in the bill had overcomplicated what could have been a simple FOIA issue.
“That opt-in provision at the K-12 level ... has been deeply concerning to a lot of the local school folks down in the New River Valley who are worried about compliance issues and are worried about children having a tough time being able to have their records be accessed by appropriate entities,” Hurst said.
Hurst said he favors a “cleaner” version of the bill that passed the Senate last week on a 35-2 vote. That bill, sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, exempts student phone numbers and email addresses from mandatory disclosure under FOIA.
The two bills will be reconciled later in the legislative session.