The Missouri State Teachers Association and The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Eastern Missouri say a new law that limits teachers’ ability to communicate with students through Facebook and other social-networking sites violates educators’ First Amendment rights, and the groups have filed two separate suits to stop the legislation from going into effect on August 28, 2011.

Both suits were filed on August 19. The ACLU suit seeks class-action status on behalf of all teachers employed in the state’s school districts. It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Thomas v. Ladue School District [PDF]. The defendants in that case are the Ladue School District and members of the Missouri State Board of Education. The MSTA suit was filed in Cole County Circuit Court against the State of Missouri, its governor, and its attorney general. Missouri State Teachers Association v. State of Missouri [PDF].

The suits target a section of the law that makes it unlawful for teachers in elementary, middle, or high schools to have non-work-related websites or any other social-networking sites that allow exclusive access with current or former students.

“The Act 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,” the MSTA suit states.

The provisions at issue are part of the broader Amy Hestir Student Protection Act that was passed to prevent teachers from sexually abusing students. The bill is named after a woman who was abused by a junior-high-school teacher in the 1980s, long before Facebook existed.

Jane Cunningham, (R-Chesterfield), the sponsor of the bill, has defended the social media component and has said that legislators are not trying to stop communication between teachers and students. According to published reports, she has said that the social-networking restrictions were imposed because they have been found to be an “early pathway to sexual misconduct.”

Read more...ABA Section of Litigation, First Amendment and Media Litigation