Missouri House lets teachers be Facebook friends with students

The Missouri House of Representatives has changed a new law in order to allow teachers and students to be friends on Facebook.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

The Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) continues winning in its war against a new law regarding social networking with students. A repeal of the recently passed law passed the General Assembly this morning in a vote of 139 to 2. Senate Bill 1 now awaits the governor's signature.

Last week, the Senate passed the new bill unanimously. Only Reps. Jay Banes of Jefferson City, and Mike Colona of St. Louis, opposed it in the House today.

Senator Jane Cunningham, sponsor of the original law, filed Senate Bill 1 during the legislature's special session that started this month. SB1 requires every school district to have a written policy concerning employee-student communication by March 1, 2012.

Two months ago, State Governor Jay Nixon signed Senate Bill 54, which was supposed to go into effect on August 28, 2011 in the state of Missouri. The bill, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, aims to fight inappropriate contact between students and teachers, including protecting children from sexual misconduct by their educators. It is named after a Missouri public school student who was repeatedly molested by a teacher several decades ago.

Among other things, it was meant to ban direct social networking contact between teachers and students in the hopes of setting more distinct boundaries on the relationships between the two. The law said teachers would still be able to have a Facebook Page for interacting with students on a slightly more personal level, as long it's still work-related. It's the actual friending, messaging, and whatever other direct connection you can make on a social network that was to be banned.

The new law was written broadly enough to prohibit teachers from communicating privately with students over the Internet, inhibiting educators' ability to converse with students via text messaging and social networks. As I outlined last month, teachers and students couldn't be Facebook friends, since the communication had to be visible to both the district and parents.

Many teachers and administrators interpreted this to mean that teachers would be forbidden to contact students via Facebook or text message, and that they could also not use educational products such as Moodle. Furthermore, many teachers feared they would be penalized for being friends with their own children on Facebook.

Also last month, the MSTA filed a lawsuit asking the Circuit Court of Cole County to determine the constitutionality of the law's social media portion. The group argued the law infringes on educators' first amendment rights of free speech, association, and religion. It asked the court to keep that section of law from being implemented until the constitutionality can be determined.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem granted MSTA's request for a preliminary injunction, effective for 180 days. If Nixon does not sign SB1, the original law will take effect Feb. 20, 2012, when the injunction expires.

Beetem found that based upon the evidence, teachers in Missouri use social media as one of their primary forms of communication. He also ordered that under this ruling, teachers cannot be disciplined or suffer adverse consequences for using non-work related social media.

Despite its successes this week and last, the MSTA has not dropped its lawsuit.

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