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Family Privacy Act Protects Parents' Rights

by U.S. Senator Charles Grassley

The Family Privacy Protection Act has a simple and indispensable premise. As a general rule, parents themselves are the best advocates for their own children and are best able to make decisions affecting their well-being. As such, the bill would require written parental consent before children under 18 years of age are given federally funded surveys that invade their privacy.

The areas deemed private by the legislation are the same areas that have been considered private for individuals and families throughout the history of our country.

For example, the bill would restrict researchers from asking a child about his or her sexual attitudes and behavior without a parent's permission. While children may need to learn the basics of sex education, pointed questions about what a child thinks of various sexual activities and practices reach far beyond a fundamental understanding of biology.

The bill also would consider private questions about child's mental or psychological problems. Asking questions about these kinds of problems sits outside of any clear-cut scholastic purpose.

The legislation also would require parental consent before researchers could ask children to appraise other family members. Believe it or not, children have been asked by researchers to go home, evaluate the contents of the family medicine cabinet, and return to class prepared to disclose what they have found. These areas and others would be guarded with the Family Privacy Protection Act.

While researchers have argued that there are good reasons to have information from children about each of these subjects, those reasons take second place to the privacy that defines the integrity of the family and the home. Such information should not be obtainable unless a parent has expressed his or her willingness to help provide it.

As it stands today, the procedure used when children are to be surveyed or given questionnaires during school hours is known as "implied consent." Here, a notice is sent home to the parents of each child to be surveyed. If the parents don't object, school officials assume it is OK to survey an individual child. The problem with implied consent is that it may be neither implied nor consent.

In an article in the February issue of Church and State, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, made a critical comment regarding parental consent for teaching controversial subjects. He wrote: "Can you imagine the chaos this would spawn, as teachers abandoned PTA meetings and course planning to pursue 'wayward' parents who hadn't even received the permission slip? (How many parents stumble on last month's homework, lunch news, 'important notices' - and occasional sandwiches - while cleaning out their children's backpacks?)"

In fact, this comment affirms why I believe implied consent is not good enough. The assumption of consent fails to account for the everyday reality for most parents described by Mr. Lynn. Clearly, implied consent presents no evidence that consent has taken place. Instead, a notice from school may well be buried in some backpack or lunchbox, only to be discovered long after the invasive survey has been given.

Therefore, the only way in which to assure parents have consented to their child's participation in a research project is to obtain a parent's signature. I appreciate that written consent may present administrative and cost burdens for researchers.

However, the real question remains, whose child is this? In turn, who is best able to discern what is best for a child other than the one who has taken responsibility and raised the child since birth?

However well-intended the professionals involved in a child's life may be, teachers, school principals and researchers do not know more or care more about a child than a child's parent. That's why the House of Representatives last year voted overwhelmingly - 418-7 - in favor of the Family Privacy Protection Act.

Parents are best suited to determine which activities are appropriate for their own children. And parents should have the freedom and discretion to say yes or no to intrusive surveys involving their own children.

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