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Hurst tackles student privacy concerns with first bill

Hurst tackles student privacy concerns with first bill

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Del.-elect Chris Hurst filed his first bill Tuesday, proposing to exempt student cellphone numbers and personal email addresses from publicly available college campus directories.

Hurst’s bill, which adds a single sentence to state code, exempts the student email addresses and phone numbers from public disclosure.

The genesis of House Bill 147 stems from this past election cycle, in which progressive political group NextGen Virginia used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain student directories from some of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. The group intended to use the information to text students about their voter registration status.

“People have their phones with them all the time,” Hurst said. “It’s an extension of their body, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that getting unsolicited text messages, especially from people who are trying to solicit you something whether it’s a product or it’s a vote from you, I think that’s an invasion of privacy.”

NextGen obtained directory information, which is often posted on a college’s website, from Virginia Tech and Radford University — campuses that played a vital role in Hurst’s win in November. Hurst’s election campaign worked with NextGen and accepted $53,946 in in-kind donations from the group, but he did not support NextGen’s use of students’ personal information and asked the group not to use the cellphone numbers to aid his campaign.

Hurst filed his bill after Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, filed legislation addressing the same issue. Hurst characterized Wilt’s bill as too broad and his own bill as a “razor-thin” change in law. Wilt’s legislation requires students to “opt in” for their personal information to be publicly available, a reverse of the current situation in which students can “opt out” of the directory by telling university officials not to publish their contact information.

A former newscaster for WDBJ-TV (Channel 7), Hurst sees the irony in an ex-journalist proposing limits on public records.

“As a former journalist and a reporter, I’m always going to be for government transparency and government accountability,” he said. “At the same flip of the coin, I’m always someone who is a staunch advocate for consumer privacy and individual privacy. Those things need to be balanced.”

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