Free speech concerns have prompted the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) to take to court a new state law that limits social networking between educators and students.

The association is seeking an injunction against a section of the law that prevents teachers from interacting with students on nonwork-related social media sites unless the conversation is entirely public.

MSTA argues in its petition to the Circuit Court of Cole County in Missouri that nonpublic communication between students and teachers is an important tool and the law will have a “chilling effect” on the Constitutional rights of school district employees.

Todd Fuller, the MSTA’s communications director, said his organization started fielding questions from its members several weeks ago, as teachers realized the language of the law — called the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act — went beyond the scope they thought it would in regard to teacher-student communication.

Sponsored by Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, the law primarily deals with making sure that a Missouri school district that fires an employee for sexual misconduct is liable for similar activity if the person is hired at another school district in the state and engages in similar behavior.

The provision of the law in question, Section 162.069, mandates that school districts need to have a written policy in place by Jan. 1, 2012 that outlines teacher-student communication and employee-student communication. It also stipulates that the policy must include what oral and nonverbal personal communication is appropriate and the proper use of social media.

“If they had stopped there, I think everything would have been fine because most districts would say that they already have that,” Fuller said. “The problem comes when the language goes on.”

The part that the MSTA and teachers object to states:

“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 that school at which the teacher is employed and who is eight years of age or less and who has not graduated.”

Fuller said that the language essentially cuts off the use of online chat functions, which help some students get an answer to a question that they may have been too shy to ask in class or on a public forum.

“Sen. Cunningham says she isn’t trying to stop you from having a public page for math, but you’re certainly stopping a teacher from giving them the option to chat online with a student using that public page [in the evening] to answer math questions,” Fuller said. “I’m the kind of student that would never raise a hand in the classroom, but had I had that option to get online and ask that question, I would do it in a split second.”

When asked whether private online chats are used frequently by instructors to speak with students, Fuller admitted “that doesn’t happen with a lot of teachers.” But many teachers create their own guidelines on how to communicate with students, he said, with some going as far to not “friend” students on Facebook or use social media at all.

Yet while private social media interaction between students and teachers may be restricted in Missouri, a private phone call to discuss homework assignments and school-related activities isn’t. Fuller said he’d love to know what the difference is between a phone call and an online chat, since both are forms of private communication.

“We’re talking about moving into another form of technology that is just the next step in how teachers and students are communicating, and to say we shouldn’t meet students where they are in terms of communicating and interacting is disappointing,” Fuller said.

In addition to social media, the MSTA believes the language potentially prohibits extensive usage of sites such as BlackBoard, Virtual Classroom, Angel and other online classroom and distance learning sites and tools.

Fuller explained that while the assumption is that something like BlackBoard would be OK, because a lot of schools use it for virtual classrooms, the way the language in the law is written, you couldn’t use it because it doesn’t allow for parents to be a part of the process right away. Students are the ones with the passwords and usernames.

MSTA asserted that texting between students and teachers would also be prohibited.

“You have some teachers and coaches that use texting as their primary means of communications with students,” Fuller said, adding that at-risk students who sometimes don’t show up in class only respond to text messaging. “They’ll text them and that’s the way they’ll hear back from them, because they won’t answer their phones or e-mail.”

In an interview earlier this month with Government Technology, Cunningham said she doesn’t want to see the use of social media and technology curbed, but wanted more transparency.

“I think we still encourage the use of the tool, just don’t hide it from the parents and school personnel,” Cunningham said. “Don’t hide it from those that have a right and responsibility to that child’s welfare.”

Why Now?

The law, also known as SB 54, goes into effect Aug. 28. Fuller said that MSTA feels the intent of the law is worthwhile except for the one section on social media. He explained that the MSTA did have criticisms of the bill during the legislative process, but Sen. Cunningham had been working on the legislation for two years, and teacher use of social media had advanced during that time. In addition, Fuller said because SB 54 was about the welfare of students, it made it difficult for its governmental relations team to criticize it publicly.

“Anytime anyone criticized it, [legislators] felt like they were being blackmailed into voting on the entirety of the bill, because if you don’t you’re against protecting kids. And that is a fallacy,” Fuller explained.

MSTA is hoping the court will address its petition before the law becomes official. Fuller said if that doesn’t happen, the association expects some sort of a judgment on SB 54’s Section 162.069 before the year is out.

There’s also a chance the Missouri Legislature will revisit the law in a special session.

“Nobody has been talking to us about this being an option for the special session until the lawsuit was filed,” Fuller said. “Then everybody started talking about addressing it in special session. If nothing else if it got the legislators off center to address this issue before January 1, then it did something.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.