In a rather unseemly move, billionaire Tom Steyer’s “grassroots” organization NextGen America obtained personal information, including e-mails, cell phone numbers, and residential addresses, of more than 30,000 college students in Virginia, reports Commonwealthtimes.org.
According to the group's website "NextGen America acts politically to prevent climate disaster, promote prosperity, and protect the fundamental rights of every American.” They do that by helping elect Democrats nationwide. In the hotly contested gubernatorial race in Virginia, NextGen America has been a strong promoter of democratic candidate Ralph Northam.
In Virginia’s public university system, student contact information is considered public information and therefore can be requested via Freedom of Information Act requests. Thus, NextGen America requested student information from all 39 publicly funded universities in Virginia. However, a caveat to the law allows colleges to deny giving that information in a FOIA request. 18 of the 39 colleges forked over the students’ information.
This resulted in many students receiving texts from NextGen America reminding them to register to vote. Northam’s campaign denied any involvement. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told Commonwealthtimes.org this move is simply a 21st century version of how politicians used to obtain student information.
“Twenty-five years ago, we had campus phone books with student names, addresses and landline numbers.” Rhyne said. “So, it’s not a new thing for commercial or political groups to ask for student directory information and use it for their own purposes.”
Still, others condemned this move as a bold invasion of privacy.
“Students should not have to jump through hoops to protect their own personal and private information,” Virginia state House Delegate Joseph Yost (R-Giles) stated in a news release. “And that information should most certainly not be given freely to political groups seeking to exploit student’s personal information.”
UVA College Republicans issued a statement calling NextGen an “outlandish organization operating without any consent whatsoever.” They called on Ralph Northam to “stand up for the fundamental rights of privacy” and condemn the "abhorrent practices" taken by NextGen.
It is important to note that this was a perfectly legal move, which to many is exactly the problem. Students give colleges their contact information for many important reasons, chief among them safety. It is likely many of them did not realize this information could the be taken by a political group used for campaign purposes.