ACLU might sue over law limiting teachers' Facebook use

The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri is considering suing the state over a new law that prohibits teachers from sending private message to students on social-networking sites such as Facebook.

"I do think there are First Amendment issues with the law," said Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.

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The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, signed into law last month by Gov. Jay Nixon (D), bans teachers from establishing an Internet site "which allows exclusive access with a current or former student."

GOP State Sen. Jane Cunningham, the author of the law, said it is designed to prevent teachers from having inappropriate contact with students. She also noted the law defines a "former student" as a person who is 18 years of age or younger, who has not graduated.


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Cunningham told The Hill she wants to encourage teachers to help students outside of the classroom, but an epidemic of sexual misconduct by teachers in Missouri and around the country convinced her of the need to keep teacher-student communications public.

According to Cunningham, many inappropriate relationships between teachers and students begin with private electronic communications.

She said the law is not intended to prevent teachers from establishing social-media profiles or even from being "friends" with students on social sites — only from sending them private messages. 

"A good teacher who is really working with a student in an appropriate way, they are going to welcome parents and department heads being able to see the good work they're doing," Cunningham said.

Rothert of the ACLU said the way the law is written, it might prevent teachers from even establishing Facebook accounts.

"The law is much broader than what it's supposed to do," Rothert said.

Even if the law is rewritten to ban only private communications between students and teachers, Rothert said he would still be concerned that it violates the First Amendment's free-speech protections.

"I think the people who wrote the law don’t understand how Facebook works, or more broadly, how the Internet works," Rothert said.

According to Rothert, any measure that curbs free speech must be narrowly tailored to address a problem.

"It's fairly easy to conceive of ways that this could be much more narrow," he said.

Facebook is also investigating the legality of the law.

"Every day, there are more stories of innovative teachers using social networks as a valuable educational tool — from answering simple homework questions online to helping identify bullying," a Facebook spokesman said. "It is imperative that this law does not limit schools' and teachers' ability to use technology in this way to educate Missouri's children, and we are working with the education and legal communities to investigate."

The law requires school districts to create rules for the use of other "electronic media" that are at as least as stringent as the rules for social-networking sites.

Rothert said this provision might ban emails or text messages between students and teachers.

Rothert said he hopes to convince the legislature to revise the law or to work with school districts to implement the requirements in ways that do not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of teachers and students.

But if those efforts fail, Rothert said, the ACLU is prepared to go to court over the issue.