The Collegian
Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Recent Virginia law prevents release of student email addresses, necessitated removal of student directory

<p>The Registrar's office is located in the Queally Center for Admission.&nbsp;</p>

The Registrar's office is located in the Queally Center for Admission. 

Students no longer have access to the Google Contact List and faculty members are restricted in the ways they mass contact students as the result of a Virginia law that went into effect this summer.

The changes, including the removal of the student directory, were made to comply with the Code of Virginia Section 23.1-405(C) after the Virginia General Assembly passed House Bill 1 and Gov. Ralph Northam signed it into law. It took effect on July 1, 2018.

The law makes it illegal for an “institution” to release the address, telephone number or email address of a student unless the student has consented in writing.

This means that faculty members, as representatives of the University of Richmond, cannot release the email address of a student to anyone not working for the institution, including other students. 

This restriction prevents professors from sending mass emails to their students with the student email addresses visible to recipients. Instead, they must bcc students or use a LISTSERV. Students who mass email other students with email addresses visible are not breaking the law, however, because they are not employed by the university. 

The language of the law also meant that the student directory and Google Contact List, which allowed students to search for other students’ emails within Gmail, had to be removed, University Registrar Susan Breeden stated in an email. Information Services removed the registry and contact list on June 29, according to an email from the Registrar’s Office sent to students on June 28. 

Previously, the university was concerned only about complying with the Family Education and Right to Privacy Act, commonly known as FERPA, when it came to releasing student information, Breeden said. 

Under FERPA, the university was able to release “directory information,” including student email addresses and phone numbers, unless the student opt-ed out, Breeden said. But the university must now follow the stricter Virginia law, despite the freedom FERPA gives it.

 “FERPA says yes," Breeden said. "The law says no.”  

Students can still consent to have their information released, but consent must be obtained individually and must be written – although an email would count, Breeden said. 

The university’s general counsel, Shannon Sinclair, tracked the bill’s progress in the General Assembly, Breeden said. At first, university leaders did not think the language of the bill would apply to UR as a private school, but the final language passed as law does, Breeden said. 

The Registrar’s Office sent a separate email to both students and faculty members informing them of the law and the changes. Since then, the office has received about 20 to 30 calls and emails with questions about the changes and law, Breeden said. 

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The Registrar’s Office has created FAQ pages for both students and faculty in response. 

“We’ve answered a lot of questions,” Breeden said. “And a lot of people have panicked, like, ‘We can’t do business!’ Well, you can. There’s ways to figure it out.”

The office also considered implementing a system over the summer in which all students could quickly opt-in for their information to be released, but the project was too time- and cost-intensive with the school year right around the corner, Breeden said. 

Instead, Breeden has advised individual departments and organizations to ask for consent themselves from students, if needed. Ultimately, it’s up to them and individual professors how they go about complying with the law, Breeden said. 

In the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, Crystal Hoyt, associate dean for academic affairs, created a simple form for professors to use if students wanted to provide their written consent, she said. 

The changes because of the law have impacted senior Nayiveth Guevara when it comes to working with other students on group projects or catching up on notes when she misses a class. 

“I think it’s a little tedious and annoying, to be completely honest,” Guevara said. “It makes it so much harder to find people’s emails and stuff, too.”

First-year Zachary Coons, however, hasn’t had any problems stemming from the law yet, he said. 

“I can’t really think of situations where I would not have access, communication with someone that I really needed to talk to,” Coons said. “You’d be given a way of contact.” 

Del. Tony Wilt, a Republican representing Harrisonburg, Virginia, filed HB1 after the progressive political group NextGen legally obtained the phone numbers of about 40,000 Virginia university students before the 2017 elections, the Roanoke Times reported. NextGen was able to request the information under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Such requests apply to public institutions. 

But UR never responds to FOIA requests, because it is a private university, Breeden said. 

Breeden, who is on a mailing list with other Virginia university registrars, said some state schools were interested in having the statute reinterpreted when the Virginia General Assembly reconvenes in January.

“The 2019 General Assembly session may provide an opportunity to seek either a clarification or modification to the law to lessen its impact on sharing student email addresses within the campus community, but, at this point, we cannot predict whether such an effort would be successful,” Sinclair, the university’s general counsel, stated in an email. 

For now, though, the law is a pain, Breeden said. 

“I think the hallmark of a Richmond education is the collaboration, and it just makes it harder,” Breeden said. 

Contact editor-in-chief Ashlee Korlach at ashlee.korlach@richmond.edu. 

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