A progressive political group obtained personal information of more than 30,000 VCU students through a records request, a university spokesperson confirmed.
The group was given the names, emails and phone numbers of students in September, after asking the university for it via a Freedom of Information Act request. That information is considered public in Virginia, but students who opted out of disclosure were not included in the list.
The group, NextGen America, is working to elect Democrats “up and down the ticket” in 2017, including Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia’s upcoming governor’s race, a spokesperson for NextGen said. The spokesperson did not say if the information was used to contact students, but a number of VCU students said they received text messages with information on how to vote from people claiming to be associated with NextGen.
A spokesperson for the Northam campaign said the campaign did not receive any data from NextGen.
NextGen requested directory information for students at all of Virginia’s 39 publically funded universities, according to the NextGen spokesperson, 18 of those 39 schools gave the information. The Roanoke Times reported earlier this month Virginia Tech, Radford University and James Madison University gave NextGen student records data. A spokesperson for George Mason University stated GMU did not give the group their students’ directory information.
Although directory data falls in the category of public records, Virginia’s FOIA laws allow universities to withhold the information, according to Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. That’s why some universities did not release the information while others did.
“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.”
A spokesperson for VCU said the university is reviewing its current practices for similar requests, but did not give additional details.
House of Delegates members Joseph Yost (R-Giles) and Tony Wilt (R-Harrisonburg) announced they would pursue legislation to prohibit state universities from releasing directory information to third parties without students’ written consent.
Yost said the idea universities could turn over directory information without a students consent is “shocking and frightening.”
“Students should not have to jump through hoops to protect their own personal and private information,” Yost 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.”
NextGen founder, hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, told The Washington Post in August he would spend at least $2 million to elect Northam, with a focus on turning out millennials. The commitment paid for 70 paid staffers to register and try to turn out voters at 25 Virginia college campuses, according to the Post.
Steyer is also funding an eight-figure TV ad campaign asking public officials to take steps to impeach Pres. Donald Trump. Trump called the Democratic mega-donor “wacky & totally unhinged” in a tweet Friday morning.
Wacky & totally unhinged Tom Steyer, who has been fighting me and my Make America Great Again agenda from beginning, never wins elections!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2017
Fadel Allassan, Contributing Writer