Missouri 'Facebook' Law: Judge Grants Injunction Against Limits on Online Contact Between Teachers and Students

Law intention was to protect against sexual predators; teachers complained.

Aug. 26, 2011 — -- A Missouri judge has granted an injunction against a new state law meant to protect children from sexual predators at school. Teachers said the law was so broadly worded it would 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 scheduled, until today's injunction, to take effect Sunday. It states, among its other provisions, that teachers may not contact their students through electronic communications, such as instant messages or Facebook posts, that cannot be seen by others.

"The breadth of the prohibition is staggering," said Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem in granting the request for injunction by the Missouri State Teachers Association. "It clearly prohibits communication between family members and their teacher parents using these types of sites. The court finds that the statute would have a chilling effect on speech."

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon joined in, calling today for the state legislature to repeal the provisions of the law concerning student-teacher communications.

"I will ask the General Assembly to repeal that particular section, while preserving other vital protections included in the bill," he said in a statement. "In addition, I will be asking for input on this issue from teachers, parents and other stakeholders."

The law was sponsored by State Sen. Jane Cunningham, a Republican from the St. Louis suburbs, who argued that all she wanted to limit was "hidden communications" between teachers and students that could not be monitored by third parties, such as parents or school administrators.

"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.

"This gives everyone time to debate and discuss the issue to come to aproper resolution rather than rushing to piece together language thatdoesn't resolve the concerns of educators or allow time for teacherinput," said Gail McCray, counsel for the teachers' association.

In Missouri, the debate over what has often been referred to as the "Facebook Law" has taken on a life of its own, with several education and civil liberties groups calling for its language to be clarified.

Today, after the injunction, Cunningham said she was disappointed that the state teachers association had not joined with other groups to modify the wording of the law. "They're wasting their members' dues," she said, "fighting in court over something that's simple to fix."

Under the law, local school districts were mandated to write new social-media policies, and some teachers said they worried that administrators, fearing that they'd be held liable in a sexual abuse case, would write needlessly tough policies.

Cunningham said the law is not nearly as onerous as teachers and school districts claimed. She cited an Associated Press investigation that found that 87 Missouri teachers lost their licenses because of sexual misconduct.

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

Chuck Collis, a high school science teacher who was a plaintiff in the Missouri State Teachers Association complaint, said, "I am not comfortable with the overall thrust of the bill. It paints all teachers as sexual predators of children. This is largely not the case."