Missouri Teacher Facebook Ban: Are there alternatives for other states?

On August 3, 2011, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed a controversial law banning teachers and students from “friending” each other on social media websites like Facebook. The law bans all private student-teacher communications online. Facebook logo The law drew immediate praise from parent groups and was denounced by Missouri teachers as an unconstitutional infringement on their free speech rights. Last month, teachers’ groups sued to block the new law’s enforcement. In this preliminary test, the teachers were victorious. As students were preparing to return to school from summer break, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem blocked the law from taking effect because of fears it may chill free speech. (See a copy of Judge Beetem’s opinion here.) In response, Governor Nixon reversed his position and is now calling for the law to be repealed in a special legislative session starting September 6th. Although the future of the law in Missouri is unclear, the debate raises questions for students, teachers, and parents around the country. Is the value of a regulation like the one enacted in Missouri worth the cost of teachers’ free speech rights? Are the claimed safety benefits worth the potential cost to student learning? Should similar laws be emulated elsewhere? It is easy to empathize with the Missouri legislature’s purpose for enacting the new law. Titled the “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act,” the law seeks to prevent the type of teacher-inflicted sexual assault experienced by then 13-year-old Amy Hestir. But are there alternatives to the outright ban enacted in Missouri? After all, social media can benefit students by allowing them to ask their teachers questions and receive feedback on assignments. The problem arises when online communication in schools is abused. Forced to face this modern challenge, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) took a different approach to the issue in November 2010. SBOE added the following provision to Texas teachers’ Code of Ethics:

Standard 3.9. The educator shall refrain from inappropriate communication with a student or minor, including, but not limited to, electronic communication such as cell phone, text messaging, email, instant messaging, blogging, or other social network communication. Factors that may be considered in assessing whether the communication is inappropriate include, but are not limited to: (i) the nature, purpose, timing, and amount of the communication; (ii) the subject matter of the communication; (iii) whether the communication was made openly or the educator attempted to conceal the communication; (iv) whether the communication could be reasonably interpreted as soliciting sexual contact or a romantic relationship; (v) whether the communication was sexually explicit; and (vi) whether the communication involved discussion(s) of the physical or sexual attractiveness or the sexual history, activities, preferences, or fantasies of either the educator or the student.

19 Tex. Admin. Code § 247.2 (2010). The Texas approach addresses the problem, but falls short of banning all private student-teacher online communication, much of which likely benefits students by making teachers more accessible for help. Tradition, case law, and common sense dictate that parents have a valid interest in protecting their children from potential danger. But at what point does the child’s interest in her education, or the teacher’s interest in free speech, outweigh a parent’s rights?

Alex Hunt

About Alex Hunt

Alex Hunt is the Yale & Irene Rosenberg Graduate Fellow at the Center for Children, Law & Policy. Alex graduated from the University of Texas in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in government. Before entering law school, he taught middle school math at YES Prep Southwest in Houston with Teach For America. In 2010, he received New Leaders' EPIC Spotlight Teacher Award, a national award for teachers with outstanding student growth. Alex graduated cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center in May 2013. During law school, Alex was Casenotes & Comments Editor for the Houston Journal of International Law, interned for both state and federal judges, and served as Vice President of the Health Law Organization (HLO). In addition, Alex has received the Irving J. Weiner Memorial Scholarship Award (for a year of outstanding work in the UH Law Center Legal Clinic), the Napoleon Beazley Defender Award (for outstanding work on behalf of children), the Ann Dinsmore Forman Memorial Child Advocacy Award, the Mont P. Hoyt Memorial Writing Award for an Outstanding Comment on a Topic in International Law, and he was a finalist for Texas Access to Justice's Law Student Pro Bono Award.

2 thoughts on “Missouri Teacher Facebook Ban: Are there alternatives for other states?

  1. August 19, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    Judge beetem is a horrible judge, high profile cases, he plays by book, however if you are going for child custody/support he will not consider the best interest of the children. Thus is my case. Christopher dean evans has two children who he does not have to pay child support on. He only has children 80 days out of year. Furthermore he also said that christopher dean evans will not be required to pay medical expenses for the children, but they should remain on medicaid. Christoppher dean evans makes 3,000 a month, why are taxpayers having to pay for their medical? Randy waltz represented christopher evans and it is my belief that the relations.hip b.etween waltz and beetem is suspicious

  2. Shiloh Carter
    Shiloh Carter
    September 7, 2011 at 4:48 PM

    Great articles Cara & Alex! Y’all set the bar high for the rest of us :)

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