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Missouri judge blocks Facebook limits for teachers

Controversial law banning private communication between teachers, students via social media is barred from taking effect

The law limiting private teacher-student conversations through social networking sites such as Facebook had been scheduled to take effect Aug. 28.

A new Missouri law prohibiting teachers from having private online conversations with students suffered a double setback Aug. 26. 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 Aug. 28. 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 Aug. 26 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.

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