A new law in Missouri that makes it illegal for teachers to privately contact current or former students on Facebook and other social networking sites is not a friend of education, teaching professionals told CNN on Monday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jane Cunningham and signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon, is set to take effect August 28, about two weeks after the school year has started for the majority of Missouri schools.
Cunningham was quick to point out Monday that despite what was being circulated on the Web about the law it didn't stop teachers from talking to students online.
"The law doesn't prohibit social media contact," Cunningham told CNN. "If anybody says it does then they have not read the law," she said. "It just stops exclusivity, we just want those conversations to be available to the parents and school districts,” Cunningham said.
So while social networking sites would be OK - as long as the communication was public - conversations that take place, say, in Facebook's built-in e-mail feature or Twitter's direct messaging feature may be unlawful.
When the bill was signed into law last month Cunningham said the measure was needed to make sure schools were aware of sexual misconduct by potential hires and employees.
The controversial section of the law says teachers “cannot have a non-work-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.”
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said his chapter is investigating whether that portion of the law violates the First Amendment rights of teachers.
“The real danger of the law is that it will chill teachers in engaging in communication not only with students but silence them and prevent them from using the Internet and social networking sites for communicating their personal beliefs about anything really, not just school matters.”
Rothert said the law appears to curtail freedom of speech, “effectively taking them (teachers) out from using social networking for political discussions or anything else.”
The law will be called the “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act,” in honor of Amy Hestir, a then-13-year-old who was sexually assaulted by her teacher. The law will also govern hiring referrals for teaching candidates as a way to record sexual misconduct by educators and ensure they don’t hop from district to district.
Vicki Sauter, professor of information systems at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, and a technology advocate who runs social networking workshops for students, said the law is misguided.
“If we’re going to get through to the kids, my philosophy is that you have to get on their level and talk to them their way,” she said. “Their way these days is electronically. What this (law) is doing is taking away a tool that a teacher can use to communicate with their students.”
Sauter said that she understood the law’s intentions though. “The other side of it of course is that there are bad people (predators) out there who are going to do bad things.”
“There are social media sites like LinkedIn where a student may want to put together a page for their career and get advice from a teacher. With this law they can’t do that, so I think it’s short sighted,” she said.
Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said the law is a beneficial but creates "some gray areas regarding teacher-student communication and we think it’s going to be clarified within local districts."
He said the onus is on teachers to make sure they are in compliance with the new law. "We have told teachers they need to talk to their specific districts and let them know if they find potential problems," Fuller said.