Earlier this year, the state of Missouri passed a law banning teachers from having private contact with their underaged students through social media. The law — which pushes further in trying to restrict off-campus communication between teachers and students than any other state has gone — was passed after an Associated Press investigation revealed that 87 teachers in the state had lost their licenses from 2001-2005 as a result of having improper sexual relationships with students, often facilitated by texts and online messages.
This past week, the Missouri State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit arguing that the ban infringes on their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association — while prohibiting teachers from engaging in the type of online tutoring and mentoring that the group says good teachers have always done offline.
As the lawsuit argues:
“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 ban on social-media contact is part of a larger bill aimed at protecting children from sexual misconduct, and the teachers’ union is seeking an injunction against only the particular piece of the legislation related to social media. The bill is scheduled to go into effect this Sunday, and it requires school districts to write new policies by 1 January governing how teachers may interact with students electronically. The teachers argue that the law’s unclear language could rope together legitimate communication — such as counselling of a student with drug or family problems — alongside inappropriate sexual advances. The lawsuit states:
The Act is so vague and overbroad that the Plaintiffs 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.
Added Gail McCray, the group’s legal counsel, in a statement:
Many of our members are concerned about the unintended consequences of this law, including their ability to monitor their own children’s online activities. It’s vague and more importantly, we believe it violates the constitutional rights of educators.
The law specifically says teachers may not have “exclusive access” to students on electronic media, suggesting they may, for example, post a public comment on a Facebook wall, but may not send a private message on Twitter. The law does not spell out, however, exactly how those distinctions should be made.
The case is the latest in a line of messy First Amendment questions schools have been confronting as communication that once occurred inside the school house — among students and between students, their teachers and administrators — moves onto the internet.
Emily Badger is Index on Censorship’s US editor