House committee passes Senate bill to protect social media privacy

By Ron Feemster
— February 24, 2014

Ron Feemster, WyoFile reporter

A bill to prohibit employers from asking for access to job candidates’ or employees’ social media passwords passed out of the House Labor Health Committee this evening by a vote of 8 to 1. Only Rep. Norine Kasperik (R-Gillette) voted “no.”

Senate File 81, authored by Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), protects the privacy of workers and especially job applicants, who need not refuse to hand over social media passwords. The bill passed third reading in the Senate 28-2.

“If a potential employee says ‘no’ in a job interview, he is up against it,” Christensen said. “But if the employer cannot ask, the job applicant does not have to say ‘no.’”

When Christensen began reading about the issue, he thought about how he uses Facebook. He began to see reasons to pass legislation to protect passwords. As he pointed out to the committee, states around the country and both houses of Congress are debating legislation about social media privacy.

Rep. Leland Christensen (R-Alta)

“I applied the bill to myself,” Christensen said. “If I had to give up my password to an employer and they got into my messages, they might find constituent issues or family issues that are not public. At the level people now use social media for communication, I think they deserve a shot at privacy.”

The bill defines social media very broadly to include “videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or internet website profiles or locations.”

Exceptions are made for situations in which a person is applying for a job in law enforcement — Christensen has served as a county sheriff’s deputy — if an investigation complies with federal or state laws, or in cases of “employee misconduct.”

An amendment suggested by Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, to add the phrase “serious misconduct” was not proposed or voted on. Neal also objected to the idea that a law-enforcement job candidate could be required to give up his passwords. Linda Burt of the Wyoming Civil Liberties Union also supported the “serious” amendment.

What if, Neal wondered, there were a picture on Facebook of a candidate engaged in legal activities like drinking beer or gambling at the Wind River Casino, and a potential law enforcement employer did not want to hire a person who drinks or gambles?

Christensen sees the bill as a first step into what he calls an “emergent area of the law.” The law, assuming it passes, may need to be revisited in future sessions as social media evolves and Wyoming citizens and lawmakers acquire experience with the statute.

“This bill does not go all the way,” Christensen said. “It does go a long way. It identifies the problem and takes a first step at addressing it.”

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