Missouri recently passed legislation restricting social media communications between teachers and students, including being “friends” on Facebook, and other internal and/or external social media sites.  No surprise – the law has drawn national attention … and criticism.  

According to the law which goes into effect on August 28, 2011: 

  • Every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications.  Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites.
  • Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.
  • Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. (Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated.)

The law’s intent is to prevent inappropriate sexual relationships between children and teachers.  No one should object to or criticize the intent of the law.  The question for me is whether the legislation has gone too far or is really necessary.

Bill sponsors defend the legislation and contend the language allows teachers to have a presence on social media sites, to be friends with students and interact via social media –  but only if those communications remain public and readily visible to parents and school administration.  See Kansascity.com – New Missouri law on social-media ‘friending’ confounds teachers.  “This law in no way stops communication with students,” said Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the bill, as quoted by the Kansas City Star.  “In fact, we encourage social-media contact with students.  We just require it to be appropriate, meaning it is not hidden from parents or from school personnel.”

Outright bans on social media communications cause others to worry that educational opportunities will be missed or hindered in the future.  Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), as quoted by MSNBC, Missouri Makes Teach-Student Facebook ‘Friending’ Illegal, put it this way, “Legislators should use caution when regulating online tools that can be instrumental for educational purposes.  We may find a time when Facebook and other similar services can be used as a valuable teaching tool and it would be a shame to see it squashed by short-sighted legislation.” 

Furthermore, as reported by the Kansas City Star, the ACLU has raised concerns that the statutory language may be so restrictive (a First Amendment violation) that teachers may not open an account on a social media site used by students.  Tony Rother, legal director for ACLU of Eastern Missouri observed, “[t]his is like taking a sledgehammer to kill a fly.  It silences a lot more speech than is necessary to address the actual problem.”  

What is the appropriate way to handle new and complex issues that arise from the broadening uses of social media?  Can legislation actually solve all of these sticky issues?  And will this legislative restriction impact other superior/subordinate relationships, or other persons who wield influence and power?

According to MSNBC, instead of a ban, the Lee County school district of Florida chose to implement guidelines to regulate teacher-student communications.  In 2010, Lee County advised teachers not to “friend” students, claiming the social media interaction was “inappropriate.”  The guidelines weren’t issued from a punitive standpoint, but a proactive one, according to Joseph Donzelli, director of communications and printing services at Lee County Public Schools, as told to MSNBC.  The guidelines also warn district employees to be careful when using social media sites to prevent future legal or workplace issues.  Donzelli continued, “[w]e don’t want teachers and students to do something they might regret.  We’ve heard stories from across the country about people posting things on Facebook that have come back to haunt them.  We aren’t the Internet police or Big Brother, we just want our teachers and students to make good decisions – and these guidelines will help them do so.”

What do you think is the appropriate way to handle these new social media issues?  Legislation or just guidelines?  Sticks or carrots?  Tough call.