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US judge blocks law limiting Facebook chats between students and teachers

The law prohibited private social networking between teachers and students, but the judge said it would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.

Alana Maddock, nurse and cheerleader coach at East Middle School, Joplin, Missouri, used Facebook to locate students after the tornado destroyed several schools and much of Joplin  in May 2011
Alana Maddock, nurse and cheerleader coach at East Middle School, Joplin, Missouri, used Facebook to locate students after the tornado destroyed several schools and much of Joplin in May 2011
Image: AP/Mike Gullett

A JUDGE IN Missouri has blocked a law which would have prohibited teachers from having private online conversations with students.

Judge Job Beetem said that law – which was due to take effect from tomorrow – would have a “chilling effect” on free speech rights.

Teachers in Missouri had protested at the new law, which they said was too broadly worded, and could stop them from using the internet to even contact their own children, reports ABC.

Democratic Governor Jay Nixon, who signed the legislation last month, has done a u-turn, calling for the law to be repealed and to abolish requirements for schools to develop written policies on teacher-student communications.

He said:

In a digital world, we must recognise that social media can be an important tool for teaching and learning.

Republican state Senator Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the measure, said she already has been working with education groups on a potential compromise that would repeal the existing law and replace it with a less-specific requirement for local school districts to develop policies about teacher-student communications. Cunningham said it’s important to make the change as soon as possible.

“There’s no reason for us to punt on this thing and let it continue to simmer and draw attention from all over the world,” said Cunningham.

The Missouri law would have barred teachers from using websites that give “exclusive access” to current students or former students who are 18 or younger. That would have meant that communication through Facebook or other social networking sites had to be done in public, rather than through private messages.

One of its main provisions, which was not challenged, requires schools to share information with other districts about teachers who have sexually abused students and allows lawsuits in cases where districts fail to disclose such information and teachers later abuse someone else. Nixon said he still supports those provisions and is not asking for them to be repealed.

A public backlash began to build against the social networking provisions over the summer, as some teachers preparing for the new school year began complaining that the law could hamper both their classroom activities and school-related conversations that occur afterhours.

“This particular issue took a national tone, and we started to hear from teachers not just in Missouri but from throughout the United States,” said Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association.

One third-grade teacher, for example, feared the law could prevent her class from communicating with one in Australia through a closed website. Others raised concerns about virtual classrooms in which students communicate with direct messages, Fuller said.

In its lawsuit, the teachers association said websites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a common part of modern interaction between teachers and students and argued that restricting them would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The judge said the teachers’ lawsuit had a good likelihood of success. His order noted that social networking sites are used extensively by teachers and that the law would have restricted online communications even between family members in which teachers are parents.

“The breadth of the prohibition is staggering,” Beetem wrote in his order, which blocks the law until 20 February so that a hearing on a permanent injunction can be held.

The judge’s order specifically assures teachers that they cannot be disciplined for engaging in private online communications with students while the injunction is in effect — even if it is later overturned.

Delmarva Now reports that the legislation was partly motivated by an investigation which found that 87 teachers in Missouri had lost their teaching credentials between 2001 and 2005 because of sexual misconduct, and that explicit online messages were a factor in some of those cases.

- Additional reporting by AP

About the author:

Emer McLysaght

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