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Journalism Teacher Sees "Facebook Law" As First Amendment Violation

Lori Rose
Kirkwood-Webster Groves Patch

August 8, 2011

Kirkwood High School journalism teacher Mitch Eden is unhappy with what he sees as a violation of First Amendment rights in the so-called “Facebook Law” aimed at limiting Facebook friendships between students and teachers.

“It’s a very frustrating thing right now for a lot of people,” said Eden, who also supervises the Kirkwood Call newspaper and the Pioneer yearbook. “The law itself was an overreaction to a problem in society.”

In addition to being unconstitutional, he said, the law hampers teachers’ ability to communicate effectively with students and to remain their trusted confidantes.

“This is how this generation communicates,” he said. “My students don’t use email. They don’t even want to pick up the telephone.

“If we’re not present there, how can we help?”

The legislation signed into law last month by Gov. Jay Nixon was intended to protect children from sexual assault. But a portion of the bill sponsored by State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, deals with social media and has school officials, teachers, students and parents talking. (See previous story.)

Kirkwood school district spokeswoman Ginger Fletcher said the district already has a policy against teachers having students as Facebook friends. She said the district would follow the Missouri School Board Association’s recommendations about whether the policy should be modified. The law sets a Jan. 1 deadline for districts to put in place a policy regarding social media.

But some teachers believe the Kirkwood policy is vague and that the new law creates even more questions.

Eden said he was hoping for more direction from administrators at staff meetings this coming week. School starts on Aug. 17.

In the meantime, he unfriended current Kirkwood students on his personal Facebook page and added an assistant principal to the group pages he manages for his yearbook and newspaper staffs. He also added the assistant principal to all of his texts and messages on Twitter.

Eden said teachers, coaches and administrators regularly use Facebook, Twitter, texting and email because they are the most effective ways to stay in touch with students and share information.

The legislation’s sponsor said she did not intend to prevent teachers from using Facebook but to limit them from having “exclusive” access to a current or former student.

Devan Coggan, last year’s co-editor in chief of the Kirkwood Call, is the administrator of a new Facebook page titled “Kirkwood Students Against MO Senate Bill #54.” She said the law does not touch upon phone or face-to-face conversations, which would be considered “exclusive” and could also have the potential for inappropriate behavior. But those conversations do not leave an electronic trail, she said.

Coggan said she often used Facebook and text messaging to talk privately with teachers about homework, grades or leaderships issues with the newspaper staff.

“I personally have used Facebook and Twitter and texting for everything from unclear homework to advice in personal matters because I trust and have grown very close to several of my teachers,” she said.

She also saw other safety-related cases where a student might want to contact a teacher privately, for instance if a student was experiencing bullying or dealing with a serious issue at home.

Eden said he felt confident Kirkwood administrators would continue to trust teachers to act professionally in communicating with students. He said his frustration was with the state law and the fact that there appeared to be no input from teachers or students.

“And those are the people directly affected by this,” he said.

Coggan agreed and said she hoped her Facebook page would lead to a discussion in the community about how Kirkwood should respond to the legislation with a “clear and effective policy.”

Copyright 2011, Kirkwood-Webster Groves Patch. Reprinted with permission

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