Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Missouri Law Bans Certain Teacher/Student Online Communications

Missouri has just passed a law prohibiting certain online communications between teachers and students.  The Amy Hestir Student Protection Action more broadly aims to protect students from sexual abuse, but the controversial provision in the law reaching student and teacher social media usage and online activity is section 162.069, which provides:
By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated.

Although it's been coined the "Facebook law," it reaches other online communication tools, as well.  And it doesn't necessarily ban all contact between students and teachers online -- just communications on a "website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student."  The law doesn't define what this is, but it presumably aims to prevent private, direct communications between student and teacher.  This would also seem to prevent a teacher with a private Facebook profile from "friending" a student on Facebook.  (Or would it?  If the only communication between a teacher and student occurred on a publicly visible "wall"?)  A number of analysts have suggested teachers who want to communicate with students on Facebook should create public Facebook fan pages, which students can "like."  This way, students and teachers can communicate on its wall, allowing their exchanges to be publicly visable.  (But this wouldn't take away the ability to send a private message -- that capability is available on Facebook by default, whether you're friends with the person you want to message or not.)

Sure, it may be a decent policy for teachers not to Facebook friend students.  But requiring it by law (a relatively ambiguous law, no less) sets the stage for some likely problems.  Although well intended, the law sure seems to leave open a lot of questions.  What exactly is "exclusive access"?  Does this law go too far?  Does it infringe on students' or teachers' free speech or freedom of association rights?  Does this prohibit communication with students the teacher actually teaches or taught?  Or all students within the district?  What about retired teachers?  Retired teachers who still substitute teach in the school district?  Doesn't this law go much further than necessary to stop improper sexual conduct between student and teacher?  If teachers aren't sure what it means, won't it chill their speech?  The law discusses communications on "websites" -- so it wouldn't reach text messages, or phone calls for that matter.

The law goes into effect later this month, but gives school districts until January 1 of 2012 to implement their new policies.