Missouri Teachers Protest 'Facebook Law' Meant to Protect Students From Sexual Predators

Missouri law to protect against sexual predators fought in court.

ByABC News
August 23, 2011, 1:11 PM

Aug. 24, 2011— -- Teachers in Missouri have gone to court to protest a new state law meant to protect children from sexual predators at school. The teachers say the law is so broadly worded that it will stop them from using the Internet to contact kids -- even their own -- for the most innocent of reasons.

The law, called the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, was named for a young Missouri woman who said she was molested by a junior high school teacher. It says, among its provisions, that teachers may not contact their students through electronic communications, such as instant messages or Facebook posts, that cannot be seen by others, such as parents or school administrators.

"The only thing we're prohibiting -- the only thing -- is hidden communications between educators and former students, mostly minors, who have not graduated," said State Sen. Jane Cunningham, the law's chief sponsor.

But the Missouri State Teachers Association says the law "is so vague and overbroad that the plaintiffs cannot know with confidence what conduct is permitted and what is prohibited." The association has filed for an injunction to stop the law, which goes into effect Aug. 28.

"When districts are telling their teachers to delete their Facebook pages and warning coaches to stop texting players to tell them a bus will be late, we knew we couldn't wait for a special session of the legislature," said Aurora Meyer, the online community coordinator for the teachers association.

In Missouri, the case against what's often referred to as the "Facebook Law," has taken on a life of its own. In addition to the teachers association court petition, the American Civil Liberties of Eastern Missouri is pursuing a case, and the Missouri National Education Association has asked for a meeting with Cunningham's staff in the hopes that a "clean-up bill" can be passed to end the controversy.

In the meantime, local school districts are busy trying to write the new social-media policies that the new law mandates. They have until Jan. 1, and some teachers say they worry that administrators, fearing that they'll be held liable in a sexual abuse case, will write needlessly tough policies.

Cunningham, a Republican from St. Louis' western suburbs, said the law is not nearly as onerous as teachers and school districts claim and cited an Associated Press investigation that found that 87 Missouri teachers lost their licenses because of sexual misconduct.

"A lot of sexual relationships start with the most innocent text message: 'How do I do this math problem?' or 'I'm going to be late for practice,'" said Cunningham.

"Coaches can use instant messages," she said. "They just have to copy the parents, that's all."

Chuck Collis, a high school science teacher who is a plaintiff in the complaint filed by the Missouri State Teachers Association, said he still worried about the reach of the law.

"In my opinion, this portion of the bill cannot be fixed," he said in an email to ABC News. "It is a clear violation of my First Amendment right to free speech. The state has no business controlling how I communicate with other people.

"I am not comfortable with the overall thrust of the bill," said Collis. "It paints all teachers as sexual predators of children. This is largely not the case."