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Court Stops Missouri’s Law Restricting Online Teacher/Student Communications

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A few weeks ago, we talked about Missouri’s Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, which restricts student-teacher online communications. The law was set to come into effect August 28, but a Missouri judge has agreed with the plaintiffs, represented by the Eastern Missouri ACLU, in a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality and has issued an preliminary injunction to stop the law based on freedom of speech concerns.

The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act is named for a former student in the Missouri public school system who was a minor when she was sexually assaulted by a teacher she communicated with online. The main goal of the law was to require school districts to inform other districts seeking a reference for a potential teacher of any substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct.

But buried within the law, says named plaintiff and teacher Christina Thomas in the current lawsuit, is a provision that prevents her, a teacher, from communicating with her own child online.

The Act provides that “[t]eachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.” Moreover, “[t]eachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.”

The complaint states that “Ladue School District has notified its teachers that they cannot have exclusive communications with their own children on Facebook, if they meet the statutory definition of student or former student” and that this prohibition violates both the First and 14th Amendments. The lawsuit notes this is the result “because there are no exceptions” written into the law.

The plaintiffs maintain that “[u]pon information and belief there are many students whose parents want them to have the ability to communicate with plaintiff and members of the plaintiff class in a manner prohibited by” the Act.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem sided with the plaintiffs, citing its potential “chilling effect” on First Amendment free speech rights. The preliminary injunction will block the legislation until at least February, but Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has called for the legislature to repeal the social media portions of the law; even those in favor of the legislation such as Senator Jane Cunningham are already talking compromise, so it looks like this might just be a textbook case of our system’s checks and balances at work.

What do you think of Missouri’s law as written? Should it be rewritten or repealed entirely?

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August 29th, 2011 at 11:04 am