Gov. Ralph Northam

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed two bills that forbid public schools and colleges from releasing a student’s email address or phone number without written consent.

Release of such information is currently discretionary. But the Democratic governor last week signed Senate Bill 512 from Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, a bill that will become one of the only exemptions in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to specifically prohibit release of public records.

The governor also has signed House Bill 1 from Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham. That bill amends state education law to say that no school can disclose student directory information without a parent or eligible student affirmatively consenting in writing.

The new laws will go into effect July 1.

Republicans filed the bills in response to a liberal group, NextGen Virginia, that used FOIA to obtain student cellphone numbers from Virginia universities, and then texted students last year about registering to vote in the November election. NextGen America is a political action committee started by billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions in Virginia helping former Gov. Terry McAuliffe win the Executive Mansion in 2013 and helping mobilize young voters last year for Democrats.

Republicans called NextGen’s texting tactics a shady practice, an invasion of privacy and an inappropriate use of public information. Virginia Commonwealth University was among the colleges that provided information.

Suetterlein’s bill amends FOIA to say that the custodian of a scholastic record cannot release the address, phone number or email address of a student in response to a request unless there’s written consent.

“Last year tens of thousands of Virginia students were made all too aware of an unintentional loophole in the Freedom of Information Act, when it was exploited by out-of-state PACs to spam their personal cellphone numbers and email addresses,” Suetterlein said in a statement Monday. “Senate Bill 512 protects students’ addresses, email addresses and phone numbers from public dissemination. This law will restore the basic privacy our students deserve and previously expected before last year.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, wrote to Northam last month, urging him to veto both bills and calling them reactions to a political maneuver during a contentious election year. Democrats swept Virginia’s statewide offices and gained 15 seats in the House of Delegates.

“Student directory information has long been used to reach students with information about products, services and opportunities, from restaurant coupons to apartment brochures, from graduate school information to career opportunities,” the letter said.

The bills, she wrote, “will stifle the free flow of information to college students, and will treat college students differently from all other adults in Virginia under existing access laws.”

Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said the governor was happy to sign the bills.

“Governor Northam agrees that schools should not release sensitive student information without their knowledge or consent,” she said by email.

Meanwhile, NextGen America issued a news release Monday saying the group would make an initial $2 million investment to register and mobilize young voters in Virginia this year to focus on flipping the Republican-held U.S. House seats of Reps. Barbara Comstock and Scott Taylor and defend Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s seat.

“NextGen Virginia will contact over 680,000 young voters through voter registration, peer-to-peer conversations, and a targeted digital and mail program,” the news release said.

Sanctuary cities

Northam also vetoed a bill from Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, that was aimed at banning so-called sanctuary cities.

A sanctuary city — Virginia doesn’t have any — generally means a locality that limits cooperation with federal immigration enforcement activities.

Northam said in a statement that House Bill 1257 would force state and local law enforcement to use resources to enforce laws that federal immigration authorities should enforce.

“Were it to become law, this bill would send a clear message to people across this commonwealth that state and local law enforcement officials are to be feared and avoided rather than trusted and engaged,” the statement said.

McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill in 2017. This year, Brian Moran, the secretary of public safety and homeland security in the Northam administration, told senators in committee that Northam opposed the bill.

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