FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the internet.
Should private social networking between teachers and students be banned entirely? Do a few bad apples spoil the entire bunch?
Is it legal for legislators to limit communications to protect teenagers from potentially predatory teachers or that school officials should discipline teenagers for social networking activities that have no school nexus?
Missouri has enacted a first-of-a-kind law that requires state school districts to adopt policies that restrict communications between teachers and students on social networking sites. The law takes effect later this month and will be enforced at the start of 2012.
The law was passed in response to sexual relationships that were formed between teachers and students. Teachers reportedly still can friend students on social networking sites so long as the sites are subject to review by school administrators or parents.
But exclusively private contact between teachers and students is forbidden.
Does this scheme make sense? Will other states follow the lead?
Plainly, teachers should not prey upon students. However, the Missouri law may be overbroad.
Most teachers do not have improper intentions as to their students. Also, there are valid reasons for teacher and students to communicate online. Many schools have Web sites through which teachers and students can interact. Teachers and students also communicate via email. Often times, such communications can be beneficial, having to do with homework, education, and school activities.
A federal judge in Indiana was recently called upon to decide whether teenage girls should have been disciplined by school administrators for posting racy photos on social networking sites wholly apart from school activities.
Without going into lurid detail, suffice it to say that these teenage girls posted relatively suggestive photos of themselves acting out with phallic-shaped lollipops and other items. Because of a couple of complaints from parents and griping from other teenage girls, the subject girls were disciplined by the school.
While not a fan of the girls' actions, the judge did hold that the disciplining of the girls did violate their First Amendment rights.
The underlying message is that schools do not necessarily have the authority to regulate students day-in and day-out, especially for conduct offsite and unrelated to the schools. And the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech, even potentially undesirable speech.
And if teenagers from a younger generation with different norms cannot test the limits of the First Amendment, who can? There is so much content on the Internet now, at some point the shock value should come down to an extent and reasonable reactions should follow.
Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP (http://www.duanemorris.com) where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at email@example.com. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.
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