Judge weighs request to stop teacher networking law

Thursday, August 25, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Missouri judge Wednesday was weighing a request to block enforcement of a state law limiting how teachers use social networking sites and communicate with students.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem heard arguments on a request for an injunction against the law, set to take effect this weekend, but made no immediate ruling. Several teachers and the Missouri State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit last week seeking the injunction.

The law calls for school districts to establish policies by January that outline "appropriate use" of text messaging, social networking sites and other Internet sites for "both instructional and personal purposes." The measure bans teachers from having work-related websites that administrators and parents can't access.

Teachers also are barred from having non-work-related sites that allow "exclusive access" online with current students or former students who are minors. So communication through Facebook or other sites must be done in public rather than through private messages. The measure states it is not seeking to block teachers from setting up nonwork sites that comply with the restrictions.

But Kent Brown, an attorney representing the educators, said the law infringes on teachers' rights.

"It clearly is overly broad, it is a prior restraint on free speech and it also interferes with the cost-effective delivery and effective delivery of educational services from teachers and local school districts in the state of Missouri," Brown said.

Carrie Tripp, one of two teachers who testified Wednesday, said she must use methods that students are using to communicate.

"This is their world. This is how they live," said Tripp, who teaches communication arts and mass media courses in the Arcadia School District.

Matt Dameron, the chief of staff in the Missouri attorney general's office, said the measure is reasonable and that there are alternatives for how teachers can interact with students.

"We taught students algebra before Facebook, OK?" Dameron said. "We taught students history before Facebook, and there other ways to communicate with students and to communicate with parents."

The legal wrangling focuses on social networking restrictions that were part of broader legislation sponsored by Sen. Jane Cunningham. The lawmaker said many have misunderstood the legislation and that it simply bars communication between a teacher and a student that cannot be viewed by someone else.

The Missouri National Education Association and Cunningham's office have said they are working on possible changes to address concerns while preserving the intent of the measure.

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