Missouri teachers sued to repeal a law that bans them from “friending” students in a case that may have national implications.
The Missouri State Teachers Association Friday said educators believe proposed law is unconstitutional and too vague, and are seeking an injunction against the law, which is set to take effect on August 28. Many teachers complain the law will hurt their ability to keep in touch with students for classroom purposes, personal problems or even emergencies.
“Teachers 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,” the association said in its lawsuit, filed against the state, governor and attorney general.
The law, approved earlier this month, prohibits teachers from adding students as Facebook “friends” or otherwise privately communicating with them on any social media site.
The social networking restrictions are part of a broader law created after an investigation found 87 Missouri teachers between 2001 and 2005 lost their licenses because of sexual misconduct. Some were fired because they were exchanging explicit online messages with students.
Under the new law, teacher-student contact is allowed on sites visible to parents, administrators or the public, such as open Facebook fan pages. Teachers and students can also e-mail and text, just as long as they copy another person on the message, said Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
But teachers in the state said most of their private communications with students are education-related and helpful for students. Also, it noted teachers regularly use non-work-related sites as an “important avenue” to contact students during emergencies and to help students with problems including bullying.
Missouri’s law may reflect growing nationwide concern about young people using Facebook and social media sites. While Facebook’s official policy states only people older than 13 years of age can use the site, more than half of all children between the ages of 9 to 12 have used the social networking site, and the numbers are climbing every year. This has led to experts being concerned that pedophiles, bullies and other people who want to harm children could target them through social media sites.
Meanwhile, teachers in Missouri say they are also concerned about youths’ online safety, but argue laws prohibiting them from communicating with students take away a vital education tool and paint them all as potential molesters.
As use of social media sites continues to grow with young people and adults alike, more school districts may enact policies to outline acceptable Internet use that will keep children safe and protect teachers from accusations of wrongdoing. Until that happens, teachers are well advised to take care to use social media sites when communicating with their students, and parents may need to take more care monitoring their children’s online activities.