JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Friday to repeal part of a contentious new law that had prohibited teachers from chatting privately with students over Internet sites such as Facebook.
If the repeal is signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, school districts instead would have to develop their own policies on the use of electronic media between employees and students.
But Nixon was noncommittal Friday when asked if he would sign the new measure, saying he wanted to talk with teachers and local school boards before making a decision.
A judge placed Missouri's law on hold shortly before it was to take effect Aug. 28, declaring that "the breadth of the prohibition is staggering" and the law "would have a chilling effect" on free-speech rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Shortly after the judge's order, Nixon added the online communications law to the agenda of a special session that began Sept. 6. Nixon's written message to lawmakers specifically limited them to repealing the law, but lawmakers decided to also make districts develop their own policies. That's part of the reason why Nixon is pausing before signing the bill.
"It would appear that they've gone in a broader focus than what my intent was when we brought folks to town" for a special session, Nixon said.
The Missouri Constitution gives the governor the authority to determine which matters lawmakers can consider during extraordinary sessions. But lawmakers contend that does not mean the governor can limit how legislators act on those matters – for example, by restricting them only to repealing a section of law instead of amending it.
Lawmakers removed the original law's most publicly controversial provision, which barred teachers from using websites that allow "exclusive access" with current students or former students who are 18 or younger, such as occurs with private messages on Facebook. But the repeal went a step further by also requiring public school districts to adopt policies by March 1 on employee-student communications, including "the use of electronic media," in order "to prevent improper communications."
The House passed the legislation to repeal and replace the law by a 139-2 vote. The Senate passed it 33-0 earlier this month.
"When we make errors we need to fix them, and that's what we're doing here today," said Rep. Chris Kelly, a Democrat from Columbia.
The latest measure has the support of many of support of Missouri's main education groups, including the Missouri State Teachers Association which had challenged the original law in court.
"It puts things back into the hands of the school districts. We're appreciative of that," said Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the teachers association.
The ban had been included in a broader law enacted earlier this year that sought to stop school personnel who have sexually abused students from quietly resigning and getting hired by other districts. That law 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. Those provisions of the law were not challenged in court and were not part of the repeal considered during the special session.
There was little debate about the ban when it passed this spring. But afterward, confusion and concerns began to surface among some teachers about whether they could be barred from using Facebook. Other teachers feared the law also could have had implications for online courses, which may be configured to allow limited access only by teachers and students.
"It became easy to call this a Facebook bill, but it was bigger than that," Fuller said. "It was more, `We're using a form of social media in the classroom right now that we're not sure if we can continue to use.'"
The only two House members to vote against the repeal Friday were Republican Jay Barnes of Jefferson City and Democrat Mike Colona of St. Louis. Both are attorneys. And both suggested that local school districts could end up adopting policies that still infringe on free speech, essentially multiplying the lawsuits that could be filed.
"We just traded one big unconstitutional ball of wax for 529 little balls of wax," Barnes said.