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ACLU: Missouri's Teacher-Student Friending Ban Violates First Ammendment

Hey teachers, you may not have to leave those kids alone, after all. The Missouri branch of the American Civil Liberties Union says that a new law which outlaws student-teacher friendships on social media sites violates the first amendment and plans to fight it.

"We’re very concerned that it violates the first amendment in several ways, by restricting a large amount of protected speech," said ACLU of Eastern Missouri Legal Director Anthony Rothert. 

Late last month, Missouri became the first state to regulate teachers' social networking conduct when Governor Jay Nixon signed Missouri Senate Bill 54 , which  states that  "no teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a non work-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student," into law.

The new bill, that is also known as the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act," was named after a young woman who was repeatedly molested by her Junior High School teacher. This bill aims to protect school children from suffering similar abuses through  ensuring that allegations of sexual abuse are reported to the authorities within 24 hours and by strengthening criminal background checks on bus drivers. However, section 162.069 of the law goes a lot further by restricting otherwise legitimate online contact between teachers and students. 

"What is says is that teachers cannot use any web site that allows for exclusive access to students, and the problem comes with the word 'exclusive access.' Exclusive access is defined as information on the web site that is available to the teacher and the student where 3rd parties have no access right," Rothert said. 

The vague language is a concern for the ACLU as it allows for a broad interpretations of the law. Facebook and other sites such as Twitter allow private messaging which violates this clause. If so interpreted, this bill could not only stop teachers from communicating with students via these sites, but may also ban teachers from creating public Facebook pages or Twitter feeds simply because these networks offer private communications as part of their array of services. 

According to Rothert, other forms of electronic communication such as e-mail, SMS, and IM also fall under the ban. He said that the ability of teachers and students to communicate privately helps children who are being bullied, need extra homework help, or are dealing with difficult home situations reach out for help, without fear of retribution. 

"There are teachers' guides out there on how to use Facebook effectively with students, and it can be a good tool for communication, especially for LGBT students who may be in a hostile home," he said. 

Rothert pointed out that the law does nothing to ban private face-to-face or telephone conversations between students and teachers, both of which are more private (and potentially dangerous) than online communication because they don't leave an electronic trail that investigators can follow. 

Another strange aspect of the law is that it bans communication with both current and former students, even those who are 18, the legal age of adulthood in Missouri. "You can vote, but you can’t talk to your teacher on Facebook,” Rothert noted.  

Though Senate Bill 54 was approved in July, it gives individual school districts until January 2012 to draft their own individual policies that enforce the law. Districts will decide what level of discipline to impose on teachers who violate the ban with potential penalties ranging from reprimand or suspension up to termination. The law does not impose criminal sanctions on teachers who are caught friending their pupils. 

Rothert said that the Missouri ACLU is exploring its options for challenging the law and wants to hear from any teachers in the state who have concerns.  The organization could litigate against the law in court, he said, or simply work with school districts to make sure the policies they draft are constitutional.