Why Laws Prohibiting Teacher Contact With Students Are Unwise

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Missouri has something called, colloquially, the Facebook Law. It prohibits educators from having exclusive communications with students over non-work Internet sites. Sounds fair, right? Sounds like a great, if heavy-handed, way to protect kids against the scourge of child sexual abuse, right? Sure. What could go wrong?

Well, a Missouri teacher has just filed suit against the state arguing that the law makes it illegal for her to chat with her own child over Facebook. See, the law says that teachers can’t contact any child if they are a former or current student. Because my mother taught my siblings and I at a private school in California before we moved to Colorado and she became a public school teacher, this law would have affected our family, too.

Christina Thomas says the law is violating her rights under the 1st and 14th amendments. Not everyone agrees, according to Yahoo news, citing a professor who says the law is the same as saying you can’t lock yourself in a room with a student. I’m not sure what the “locking” is when it comes to online contact. The ACLU, which is representing Thomas, says it all comes down to whether the state can infringe on free speech rights. According to the article:

The 4th Circuit ruled last month that a West Virginia school district could not suspend a student for creating a MySpace group that accused a fellow student of having herpes. The 7th Circuit similarly 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.”

The fact is that child sexual abuse is a huge story in public schools. It gets hardly any attention — we much prefer to focus on, say, Catholic priests — because of how decentralized schools are. I get that it’s a problem and I personally know people who were affected by it. But is this the best way to handle things? By taking away the free speech rights of all teachers and students to contact each other? That seems like something that won’t withstand judicial scrutiny.

I will say that as a parent, I’d be on guard against any teacher having too much private contact with my child. But my private conversations with teachers were always beneficial and I still count some of them as dear friends decades later.