US bill to restrict social networking between teachers and students contested

by Amanda Ryding and Alexandra Bartlett

In brief - Freedom of speech concerns halt student protection act

On 24 August 2011 the Missouri State Teachers Association contested a bill which, amongst other things, proposed to restrict communication between teachers and students on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Bill intended to protect children from online predators

The bill was entitled The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. It established a taskforce for the prevention of sexual abuse of children, as well as a number of mechanisms for the reporting of such abuse.

Court upholds teachers' concerns regarding freedom of speech 

This dispute illustrates the clear tension between the use of social networking as an effective teaching tool and the fear of online predators of children.

The Missouri State Teachers Association argued that the restriction of communication on social networking sites was too great an impingement on freedom of speech. The Circuit Court of Cold County, Missouri agreed.

The Court found "the breadth of the prohibition" staggering and noted that:

"It is often the primary, if not sole manner, of communications between [teachers] and their students. ... 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". 

Balancing use of technology against the need to protect children 

Although in Australia there is not the same system of civil rights in terms of freedom of speech, this case demonstrates the uncertainty of regulators as to how to protect children from online abuse, given that for the most part, communication on a social networking site is an efficient and useful educational tool.

This is a tension that remains current worldwide in education. It is such a new area of regulation and control and law that it is useful to look to international decisions to assist in developing policies in Australia.

Arguably the best approach is for schools to educate children on sensible internet use and social networking and attempt to control teacher/student communication on these sites with clear internal policies.

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

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