Missouri teacher sues state over ‘Facebook law,’ says she can’t contact her own child online

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

A Missouri teacher has sued the state over a new law that prevents teachers from contacting their students over the Internet, arguing that it will make it illegal for her to chat with her own child over Facebook.

The law, which has been nicknamed the Facebook law, prohibits teachers from having exclusive communications with students over non-work Internet sites. Students are defined as anyone under 18 who attend or used to attend the school where the teacher works. In her suit, Christina Thomas alleges that the Ladue, Mo., school district where she works has told teachers that they cannot have "exclusive communications" with their own children on Facebook if their children meet the law's definition of former or current student.

Thomas says the law is violating her rights under the 1st and 14th amendments.

Not everyone agrees the law goes too far.

Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Huffington Post that the bill is a good way to tackle sexual abuse in schools. She found that about 10 percent of public school students in 2000 reported that they experienced unwanted sexual harassment or abuse from an educator.

"Exclusive and private contact with your students isn't educationally necessary," she told the site. "In the same way that in a school we would say, 'No, you may not lock yourself into a room with a student,' this law effectively says, 'No you may not lock yourself into a website where only you can get to the student.'"

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Thomas, argues that there are better ways to prevent teacher misconduct than infringing on free speech by blocking contact on social media sites.

Banning Facebook conversations and the like also amounts to a restriction on students' ability to communicate with their teachers, and in the courts, the extent to which school officials can dictate students' behavior online has been a contentious subject. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that administrators could punish a student who raised a "Bong hits 4 Jesus" banner across the street from his school because the banner created a "substantial disruption" within the school. Appeals courts have since tackled cases of disciplined students who say their off-campus online activity is free speech and not disruptive enough on campus to merit suspension.

The 7th Circuit sided with two high school students who were punished for posting racy photos of themselves online. In June, the 3rd Circuit ruled that two students should not have been suspended for creating MySpace profiles while at home that mocked school administrators.

"It would be an unseemly and dangerous precedent to allow the state, in the guise of school authorities, to reach into a child's home and control his/her actions there to the same extent that it can control that child when he/she participates in school-sponsored activities," the judges wrote.

In April, however, the 2nd Circuit ruled that a school district was within its rights to prevent a student from running for class secretary after she wrote on her personal blog while at home that "jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in central office." And the 4th Circuit ruled last month that a West Virginia school district could suspend a student for creating a MySpace group that accused a fellow student of having herpes.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the 4th Circuit decision.