Missouri teachers fight to be Facebook friends with students

A Missouri teachers group is fighting the state's new law that prohibits them from being Facebook friends with their students.
Written by Emil Protalinski, Contributor

The Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) filed a lawsuit on Friday, challenging a new law. MSTA is specifically asking the Circuit Court of Cole County to determine the constitutionality of the law's social media portion.

Senate Bill 54, 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.

The new law is broad enough to prohibit teachers from communicating privately with students over the Internet, and inhibits educators' ability to converse with students via text messaging and social networks. As I outlined earlier this month, it means teachers and students can't be Facebook friends.

MSTA argues the law infringes on educators' first amendment rights of free speech, association, and religion. The group is asking the court to keep that section of law from being implemented until the constitutionality can be determined.

"Many of our members are concerned about the unintended consequences of this law, including their ability to monitor their own children's online activities," Gail McCray, MSTA Legal Counsel, said in a statement. "It's vague and more importantly, we believe it violates the constitutional rights of educators."

"Plaintiffs have used and are using non-work-related social networking sites as an important avenue for contact with students, both during emergencies and for everyday educational issues, such as when a student has difficulty with a classroom assignment or identifying bullying," the lawsuit states. "Senate Bill 54 makes it unlawful for Plaintiffs who are also parents of a child in the school district to communicate with her student/child via a non-work-related social networking site if there could be exclusive access."

Last month, State Governor Jay Nixon signed Senate Bill 54, which goes into effect on August 28, 2011 in the state of Missouri. The new law bans direct social networking contact between teachers and students in the hopes of setting more distinct boundaries on the relationships between the two.

Teachers will 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 will not be allowed.

It's still not clear how Missouri plans to implement the law, whether social networks will be asked play a part in the enforcement, nor if the state be allowed access to Facebook accounts, personal computers, and/or ISP records. It is, however, obvious that the language used to describe the law is too general and overreaching, at least according to many of the state's teachers.

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