Missouri's Facebook law only applies to private messages, senator says

Monday, August 15, 2011
Sen. Jane Cunningham

Many Missouri teachers have unfriended their students on Facebook in recent weeks to comply with a new law concerning the use of electronic communication and social media. Turns out, according to the state senator who wrote the legislation, they didn't have to.

Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said many educators are misinterpreting a section of the law, which says "no teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a non work-related Internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student." The law, Missouri Senate Bill 54, or the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, goes into effect Aug. 28 and requires school districts to adopt policies by Jan. 1 regarding teacher-student communication using electronic media and social networking.

Communication on Facebook between teachers and students is not prohibited by the law, Cunningham said. Teachers are also allowed to keep their personal pages and can use Facebook and other social media as they always have but cannot engage in private messaging with students. The law covers all students, current and former, until they turn 19 or graduate.

"It's not the friending that's the problem, it's the hidden communication," Cunningham said. "The law still allows all the communication that is going on now; it just makes sure that it's not hidden from third parties like parents and school personnel."

According to the Associated Press, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri is calling the law confusing and saying it is concerned about freedom of speech and may file an injunction against the legislation.

Tony Rothert, the ACLU's legal director, said the law is decimating protected speech in an effort to stop a small amount of dangerous speech.

Cunningham takes the position that the law is designed only to protect students and deals with inappropriate private communication.

"When people say you shouldn't inhibit any kind of communication between a teacher and a student, we need to remember we are dealing with minor children in a situation where the teacher is the authority figure and has a lot of influence over that child," she said.

Since school districts will be making their own policies, Cunningham said, there may be variations on what is allowed when it comes to teacher-student communication using texting, email and social media, but it will be up to the district.

Jackson School District superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher said the district will wait for the Missouri School Boards' Association to come out with a policy it can adopt before making any changes to conduct policies. The association's website says the policy implications of the law are being studied and that it is developing sample policies.

"There's still a lot of questions surrounding it, and not everybody is on the same page yet. That's where our faculty will have to be before we do anything with it," Fisher said.

The district has not had any policies on social media in place before.

Cunningham said many reports of sexual abuse by teachers over the years in Missouri started with innocent, hidden communication, even for the person the law is named after, Amy Hestir Davis, who was abused by a teacher when she was in junior high.

Although when Hestir was abused electronic communication wasn't available as it is now, Cunningham said, the situation came about partly because the teacher was passing notes to the teenager, which is considered private communication.

The law also requires school districts to report any allegations of sexual misconduct by a teacher or employee to the Missouri Social Services Children's Division within 24 hours and requires districts to adopt a policy that says the district may provide information on former employees to public schools, prohibits registered sex offenders from serving on school boards, requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to conduct annual background checks on certified teachers and strengthens criminal background checks for school bus drivers.

While the bill was being discussed by legislators, no one caught that the language was not made specific enough to exclude teachers who may have someone in their family as a student. Cunningham said the failure to exclude family members from being able to privately communicate is a glitch that will be fixed with an amendment when the legislature convenes in January.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

614 E. Adams St., Jackson, MO

Jefferson City, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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