Increasingly, states and school districts are struggling over how to deal with teachers who communicate with students online via social network websites. One foolish way to address the issue is via strict bans, such as a law passed in Missouri earlier this year that attempted to ban teachers from friending students on social network websites. Such laws are likely violations of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and association, and I blogged at the Huffington Post that the law was unconstitutional. Soon thereafter, a court quickly struck down the law.
The NY Times now has an article out about the challenges in crafting social media policies for teacher-student interaction, noting that “stricter guidelines are meeting resistance from some teachers because of the increasing importance of technology as a teaching tool and of using social media to engage with students.”
There are a number of considerations that schools should think about when crafting a social media policy:
1. The policy should account for the fact that there are legitimate reasons for students and teachers to communicate online. A teacher might be related to a student, and certainly a law or policy shouldn’t ban parents from friending their children. Or a teacher might be a godparent to a child or a close family friend or related in some way.
2. One middle-ground approach is to require parental consent whenever a teacher wants to friend a minor student online. This greater transparency will address the cases where teachers might have inappropriate communication with minors.
3. Clear guidelines about appropriate teacher expression should be set forth, so teachers know what things will be inappropriate to say. Teachers need to learn about their legal obligations of confidentiality, as well as avoiding invasions of privacy, defamation, harassment, threats, and other problematic forms of speech.
5. Education is key. I’ve read about a lot of cases involving improper social media use by educators, and they often stem from a lack of awareness. Teachers think they can say nearly anything and it will be protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment law actually gives schools a lot of leeway in disciplining educators for what they say, and educators can also be sued by those whom they write about. Educators often think that if they post something anonymously, then it is okay or they can get away with it — but anonymity online is often a mirage, and comments can readily be traced back to the speaker. And educators often set the privacy settings on social media sites incorrectly. They don’t spend enough time learning the ins and outs of the privacy settings. These are actually quite tricky — even rocket scientists have trouble figuring them out.