The Missouri State Legislature has passed a social networking law which prohibits communication through websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, between teachers and current students or former students who are still classified as minors under Missouri state law.
The impetus behind this restriction apparently stemmed from an Associated Press investigation which revealed that 87 Missouri teachers lost their certification licenses, between 2001 and 2005, due to sexual misconduct, including misconduct related to the exchange of explicit online messages with students. The law requires Missouri school districts to establish social networking policies, by January 1, 2012, which delineate an appropriate use of electronic media, including text messaging and the use of Internet sites, for both instructional and personal purposes. Teachers are prohibited from having “exclusive access” with current or former students who are minors. Any such Facebook or internet site communication must be done in a public setting.
The law further bars teachers from setting up or using non-work related websites that allow for communication between teachers and their students.
The teachers’ association has filed a lawsuit claiming that the social network restriction infringes upon its members’ constitutional rights, specifically rights pertaining to free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of association. In addition, it has filed an injunction seeking to block the law from taking effect until a court has issued a decision on its constitutional claims.
Advocates in support of the measure have argued that the law is not meant to chill the exercise of first amendment rights as teachers may still use Facebook and other social sites, they just cannot communicate with students in a private setting. Supporters claim that the law is solely targeted to stop “hidden communications” between educators and minor children.
Time will tell whether the Missouri law will withstand legal scrutiny. In the interim, school districts are well advised to adopt a social networking policy regulating the use of social media by school employees. However, in drafting such a policy, school districts must be mindful not to infringe upon the first amendment rights of its employees. Therefore, school districts interested in adopting a social network policy are encouraged to seek the assistance of legal counsel.