Lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban unauthorized people from distributing recordings of remotely taught classes and fine anyone who does so.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, said the measure is aimed at protecting teachers from harassment. But it’s drawing criticism from those who say it would harm transparency in public education.

The legislation was inspired, Dodge said, by an incident last fall in which a parent shared part of a Bangor teacher’s lesson on racial privilege to a Facebook page that supported former President Donald Trump, sparking hateful comments and vitriol toward the teacher.

“The (Maine Education Association) felt that because of Zoom and new circumstances that it was important to protect teacher and student privacy,” Dodge said, referring to the state teachers’ union. “It’s unfortunate the impetus of the bill has been misinterpreted. This really is about safety and not being inflammatory with the rebroadcasting of portions of lessons on Zoom.”

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 (with three members absent) in favor of L.D. 864 last week but included an amendment that significantly narrows the scope of the original bill. It will head to a House vote in the coming weeks.

The vote came about a week after the committee voted to reject a similar bill, L.D. 331, that would have prohibited recordings of lessons in which students can be seen or heard from being released under Maine’s public records law.

L.D. 864 originally would have prohibited any “unauthorized” person from viewing, listening to or participating in remote instruction for K-12 schools. It also would have prohibited the recording and distribution of remote instruction without the written consent of the school. It drew concern from parents who wanted to see transparency around and access to their children’s education.

“As a parent with a middle school-aged daughter, who has to use Zoom during her hybrid learning, I feel very uncomfortable thinking that a teacher is not comfortable with me having the capability of listening in to a class,” Jennifer White of Gray, a parent and the owner of a child care center, said in written testimony. “When we are in the home environment sharing space, it is not uncommon for us to be in close proximity while her Zoom meetings are happening. This kind of law would make it impossible for remote instruction to happen at home or in a child care center on a Zoom platform.”

Dodge said those types of concerns have been addressed in the amendment, which replaces the original language to say a person “may not distribute or retransmit a recorded session of remote instruction” without authorization from a school and eliminates the part about prohibiting “unauthorized” people from viewing and listening to remote classes. Any violation is subject to a civil fine of between $200 and $500.

As a former music teacher, Dodge gave an example in her own testimony of a time when she was teaching a unit on New England music and a student asked about a religious reference in the soundtrack to a video she was using. As she was explaining the concept of the Holy Trinity in Christianity, her principal walked into the class.

“This is one instance where if a parent could record and post a video clip from this class, they could very easily portray the exchange out of context,” she wrote. “I was not attempting to convert anyone – we were simply learning about historical New England culture and religious influences.”

In an interview, Dodge said the aim of the bill isn’t to prevent parents from recording a Zoom lesson on long division to watch later, for example, but rather to prevent the rebroadcasting or sharing of lessons in ways that could be harmful to teachers.

The Maine Education Association also expressed similar sentiments in testimony filed in support of the bill.

“This is what the bill does: it provides some level of protection from the following happening: a part of a proper, carefully planned lesson – part of an established curriculum – or a part of an open and balanced discussion, is recorded, taken out of context, shared and displayed on social media where a teacher, or possibly a student, is criticized, ridiculed, even threatened, by others who not only do not have knowledge of the fuller context but also may be out to undermine the teacher, the school, or even public education due to their own personal beliefs,” Grace Leavitt, the association president, wrote in her testimony.

In September, as schools around Maine were adapting to hybrid and remote learning, the Bangor Daily News reported on a parent’s recording part of a seventh-grade teacher’s lesson on gender and racial equity and then posting it in a pro-Trump Facebook group, calling it “unbelievable.” Several commenters called for the teacher to be fired, the newspaper reported.

“We’re trying to prevent those types of inflammatory or injurious situations that can happen when folks twist what they see or hear,” Dodge said.

At the same time, some lawmakers and groups have raised concerns about a lack of transparency and public access. Both the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Maine Press Association submitted testimony against the original bill. Even with the amendment, both the ACLU and MPA said they continue to oppose the bill.

“It is difficult to have genuine connections with one another in this time of working and learning from home,” wrote Megan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine. “Without those genuine connections, relationships and respect can break down quickly, and rancor and misunderstandings too easily creep in. However, exempting records of what happens in public schools from public scrutiny is not the answer to a breakdown in decorum.”

Rep. Jim Thorne, R-Carmel, one of the four committee members who voted against the bill, also expressed concerns about transparency and implementation.

“Transparency was an issue,” he said. “We were discussing that as a concern – that it didn’t allow for transparency.”

Dodge is aware there are concerns about a lack of media access and transparency, but said many schools already have policies in place requiring media permission slips for students whose names or photos are used in coverage.

“Certainly if there were some wonderful event happening the usual permissions would allow for rebroadcasting,” she said.

The bill comes as many schools have spent the past year engaged in hybrid or remote classes over platforms like Zoom or Goggle Meet. While many schools increased in-person learning this spring and are making plans for a full return in the fall, Dodge expects legislation around remote learning to remain relevant going forward.

“I believe there will be a need because going forward we certainly will be continuing to take advantage of this technology in some way,” she said.


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