Warning: count(): Parameter must be an array or an object that implements Countable in /nfs/c03/h08/mnt/52664/domains/childrenandthelawblog.com/html/wp-content/plugins/microkids-related-posts/microkids-related-posts.php on line 645
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. 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 In response, Governor Nixon reversed his position and is now calling for the law to be repealed in a special legislative session starting September 6th.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?