Can Facebook get teachers fired?
A Missouri public schoolteacher is seeking to stop a state law limiting teachers’ contact with students on social networks, calling it unconstitutional and a violation of protected free speech rights.
A Missouri public schoolteacher is seeking to stop a state law limiting teachers’ contact with students on social networks, calling it unconstitutional and a violation of protected free speech rights.Skip to next paragraph
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The prohibitions against online use are part of a broader law seeking to protect children from sexual predators in the classroom.
The law, formally titled the “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act,” was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon July 14 and goes into effect Aug. 28. It forces school districts to draft a policy by Jan. 1, 2012 that, among other protections, prohibits teachers from entering private communication with students and former school-age students via Facebook and other social networks.
In her class action complaint filed in federal court, teacher Christina Thomas is seeking a temporary injunction against the law, saying it violates her free speech rights protected by the first and 14th amendments.
Although the law was intended to guard students against sexual predators, Ms. Thomas says it “is unconstitutionally vague in that it fails to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct it prohibits, authorizes, or encourages.” She says the law is unnecessarily broad and even puts teachers in jeopardy when using social networks to communicate with their own school-age children.
The Missouri Teachers Association is also challenging the law on similar grounds. The organization’s separate complaint, filed in state court Friday, calls the law “so vague and overbroad” that lawmakers “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 by school teachers.”
Sen. Jane Cunningham (R), who sponsored the bill, defends the law, saying it “in no way stops communication with students.” The law says teachers can only communicate online with students if the website “is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian.”
Anthony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which is representing Thomas, says his client was alarmed after she learned her school district would impose disciplinary action against teachers if it discovered teachers were using Facebook even when communicating with their own children or others of school-age involved in outside school activities such as Sunday school class, athletic teams, or Scout troops. Mr. Rothert says Thomas has three school-age children of her own.
“She’s facing the choice of either defying what she was told by her employer or refraining from doing it even though she might not be caught,” Rothert says. Either way, “both of those constitute enough of an injury under the first amendment to get relief.”