A Missouri teachers’ union is challenging a new measure that restricts teachers’ use of social-networking sites and their contact with students, saying it violates their constitutional rights.
The Missouri State Teachers Association said it is seeking an injunction to block enforcement of part of a state law that was scheduled to take effect Aug. 28. The union and several public school teachers assert the law violates educators’ constitutional rights to free speech, association, and religion.
The social-networking restrictions are part of a broader law that was proposed after an Associated Press investigation found 87 Missouri teachers had lost their licenses between 2001 and 2005 because of sexual misconduct, some of which involved exchanging explicit online messages with students.
Missouri is not the only state trying to limit online interaction between teachers and students. In March, the Virginia board of education passed a policy that established guidelines for school districts to make online interaction between teachers and students more transparent.
Initially, the proposed Virginia guidelines were more proscriptive, restricting online teacher-student communication through social networks, online games, or text messages unless it was through an education-friendly platform provided by the school or district. The policy also said school employees should decline or ignore “friend” requests from students on sites like Facebook. But the proposal provoked a flurry of indignation from some educators, and the state board ultimately adopted a much more general policy guideline.
Other states have addressed the issue in some form as well. This year, Rhode Island adopted legislation banning social-networking sites in schools unless they are specifically being used for educational purposes. A Louisiana state law requires all school districts to document every electronic interaction between teachers and students that takes place through a “nonschool-issued device, such as a cellphone or email account.”
Some school districts have also taken similar measures. The 68,000-student Granite district in Salt Lake City and the 80,000-student Lee County public schools in Fort Myers, Fla., have both barred teachers and students from becoming “friends” on Facebook.
But many Missouri teachers have complained the law in their state will hurt their ability to keep in touch with students for classroom purposes, personal problems, or even emergencies.
Under the law, school districts must establish policies by January that outline “appropriate use of electronic media such as text messaging and Internet sites for both instructional and personal purposes.” Teachers are barred from having “exclusive access” online with current students or former students who are minors. That means communication through Facebook or other sites must be done in public.
The law restricts non-work-related websites that allow communication between a teacher and a student that cannot be viewed by others, though the measure states it is not attempting to prohibit teachers from setting up non-work websites that comply with the restrictions.
Missouri State Teachers Association spokesman Todd Fuller said the organization has heard from an increasing number of teachers that districts have interpreted the law in different ways, including some who say that they have been told they cannot have a Facebook page.
The group’s lawsuit—a copy of which was provided to the Associated Press—asserts that the restrictions for non-work-related sites amount to prior restraint and violate educators’ free-speech rights. The law “is so vague and overbroad that the plaintiffs cannot know with confidence what conduct is permitted and what is prohibited and thereby ‘chills’ the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech, association, religion, collective bargaining, and other constitutional rights by school teachers,” the lawsuit states.
State Sen. Jane Cunningham, a Republican, who sponsored the legislation, said critics misunderstand the law. She said teachers are not barred from using Facebook and other websites. They also aren’t prohibited from communicating with students, provided those discussions are public.
“It only stops hidden communication between an educator and a minor child,” said Ms. Cunningham.
Contributing Writer Michelle R. Davis also provided reporting for this article.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Missouri Teachers Challenging Law on Cyber Talk