Controversial sections of a Missouri law that limit teachers’ ability to communicate with students through Facebook and other social-networking sites are unlikely to ever take effect in their current form. A Missouri judge has temporarily blocked the enforcement of the prohibitions on First Amendment grounds, and Governor Jay Nixon will seek revisions of the language during a special legislative session starting September 6, 2011.
“The Court finds that the statute would have a chilling effect on speech,” said Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem in issuing a preliminary injunction on August 16, a few days before the law was to go into effect. Missouri State Teachers Association v. State of Missouri [PDF]. The Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) had filed suit on August 19, 2011.
In blocking the enforcement of the law until at least February, Beetem said the “breadth of the prohibition is staggering.” He noted that social media is “often the primary, if not sole manner, of communications between the Plaintiffs and their students.” The ruling also pointed out that the statute would “prohibit all teachers from using any non-work-related social networking sites,” thus blocking communication between teachers who are parents and their own children.
On the same day as the court ruling, Nixon said he would ask the legislature, which unanimously passed the law earlier this year, to repeal specific provisions because of the “confusion and concern” among educators, students, and families.
“In a digital world, we must recognize that social media can be an important tool for teaching and learning. At the same time, we must be vigilant about threats posed to students through the Internet and other means,” he said in a statement released by his office.
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, had defended the social-media component, saying the aim was to stop sexual misconduct, not communication between teachers and students. However, she said her office has been working with teachers’ groups to clarify and eliminate ambiguity in the language.
“I am prepared to work with my colleagues to introduce and pass compromise language both protecting our students online, while enabling our teachers to continue to use technology as a teaching tool.” she said in a statement.
The controversial section specifically bars teachers from having “exclusive access” online with current students or former students who remain minors. This means that any communication on social networking sites must be done in public rather than through private messages. “Exclusive access” is defined by the bill as any website that requires mutual consent by both the teacher and student to access information, making the range of the bill extremely broad, according to critics.
The MSTA suit says the law prohibits teachers from interacting with students on social-networking sites that they commonly use for online classes, distance learning, and dealing with educational issues such as when a student has difficulty with a classroom assignment. Teachers also use these sites to stay in contact with students during emergencies and to deal with other problems, such as identifying bullying.
In addition to the MSTA suit, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Eastern Missouri has filed a class-action case, Thomas v. Ladue School District [PDF], in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, challenging the language that would prohibit teachers, who are also parents, from using social-networking sites to communicate with their own children. Christina Thomas, the named plaintiff in the ACLU suit, is a teacher who is also a parent.