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Missouri judge blocks Facebook limits for teachers

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A new Missouri law prohibiting teachers from having private online conversations with students suffered a double setback Friday. First, a judge blocked it from taking effect because of free speech concerns. Then the governor called for its repeal.

The law limiting teacher-student conversations through social networking sites such as Facebook had been scheduled to take effect Sunday. But Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem issued a preliminary injunction blocking it until at least February, saying the restrictions "would have a chilling effect" on free speech rights.

A couple of hours later, Gov. Jay Nixon said he would ask lawmakers to repeal the restrictions during a previously scheduled special session that starts Sept. 6. Nixon's request goes even further than the judge's order, which was confined to private conversations on non-work-related websites. The governor also wants lawmakers to reverse new restrictions on work-related websites and abolish a requirement for schools to develop written policies by January on teacher-student communications.

Nixon, who signed the legislation last month, said Friday that the provisions about online communication are "causing substantial confusion and concern among teachers, students and families" and thus should be stricken.

"In a digital world, we must recognize that social media can be an important tool for teaching and learning," said Nixon, a Democrat.

Republican state Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the measure, said she already has been working with education groups on a potential compromise that would repeal the existing law and replace it with a less-specific requirement for local school districts to develop policies about teacher-student communications. Cunningham said it's important to make the change as soon as possible.

"There's no reason for us to punt on this thing and let it continue to simmer and draw attention from all over the world," said Cunningham, who represents a suburban St. Louis district.

The Missouri law would have barred teachers from using websites that give "exclusive access" to current students or former students who are 18 or younger. That would have meant that communication through Facebook or other social networking sites had to be done in public, rather than through private messages.

The limits on Internet communications were included in a broader education bill passed earlier this year with the overwhelming support of the Legislature and various schools groups, including the Missouri State Teachers Association, which later filed suit over the social networking provisions.

One of its main provisions, which was not challenged, requires schools to share information with other districts about teachers who have sexually abused students and allows lawsuits in cases where districts fail to disclose such information and teachers later abuse someone else. Nixon said he still supports those provisions and is not asking for them to be repealed.

A public backlash began to build against the social networking provisions over the summer, as some teachers preparing for the new school year began complaining that the law could hamper both their classroom activities and school-related conversations that occur afterhours.

"This particular issue took a national tone, and we started to hear from teachers not just in Missouri but from throughout the United States," said Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association.

One third-grade teacher, for example, feared the law could prevent her class from communicating with one in Australia through a closed website. Others raised concerns about virtual classrooms in which students communicate with direct messages, Fuller said.

In its lawsuit, the teachers association said websites such as Facebook and Twitter have become a common part of modern interaction between teachers and students and argued that restricting them would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The judge said the teachers' lawsuit had a good likelihood of success. His order noted that social networking sites are used extensively by teachers and that the law would have restricted online communications even between family members in which teachers are parents.

"The breadth of the prohibition is staggering," Beetem wrote in his order, which blocks the law until Feb. 20 so that a hearing on a permanent injunction can be held.

The judge's order specifically assures teachers that they cannot be disciplined for engaging in private online communications with students while the injunction is in effect – even if it is later overturned.

The attorney general's office, which defended the law in court, declined to comment Friday.

Fuller said that if lawmakers repeal the law, then the group's lawsuit would become moot. "But until that happens we wouldn't drop the suit," he added.

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