Catching up on the moral panic news, the Missouri legislature has scrapped a provision of a child protection law that would have banned teachers from using Internet social networking sites to communicate with students after a county court issued an injunction against the measure on grounds that it violated the First Amendment.
The revised bill now awaits Gov. Jay Nixon signature, who after originally supporting the bill, who reversed of his position in the wake of the court ruling. However, the bill apparently has been languishing in his inbox since late September.
Nixon signed the orginal bill in August after it passed both Missouri houses by wide margins. The bulk of the law creates new procedures for school districts to handle cases of sexual abuse of students by teachers, and was primarily aimed at “pass the trash” policies that allowed schools to move problem teachers from school to school. The bill, known as The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, grew out of a case where a student was sexually assaulted by a teacher. The school district allegedly took no legal action on the charges. The teacher was merely transferred around the district but faced no other consequences.
Even though the Hestir case occurred thirty years ago, long before the advent of the web or social networking, the legislature, urged on by Nixon, added the social networking ban. The measure drew instant fire from the Missouri State Teachers Association, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, which attacked it as both vague and unconstitutional. Although the Facebook ban got the most attention because of the brand name, Missouri teachers also said the sweeping language of the bill criminalized a plethora of distance learning and Internet-based teaching programs.
Although it was ultimately reversed, that the ban was passed in the first place points to the moral panic about social networking that still pervades the country. Moreover, when misguided legislation like this comes out of a statehouse, it begs the question whether the legislators themselves have taken the time to learn how social networking actually works.
It’s not to say that there are dark corners of the Internet. But services like Facebook deserve credit for creating relatively safe zones for online social interaction. For starters, social networking is very public. It’s very hard to hide in the shadows. Comments and messages on social networks, even person-to-person, are harder to delete than conventional email, and can be widely duplicated and retransmitted much more easily. They also leave a clear trail back to the sender. Since the whole reason for a student to “friend” a teacher would be because he or she was indeed a recognized teacher, predation or abuse could not be done anonymously or under a false username. It would be very hard for a teacher to stalk a student without it coming out into the open. True predators are far smarter and far more manipulative. That’s what makes them so evil. In fact, if legislators were to pick up a good book on predator psychology our children would be safer and embarrassing legal spectacles such as we’re seeing in Missouri would be avoided.
But there’s principle to be considered, too. The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act Beyond tales an approach that is becoming all to common when lawmakers seek to “do something” about a complex problem. First, assume everyone’s a potential suspect, and second, curtail personal rights and freedoms that can be conveniently scapegoated. The Missouri teachers social networking restriction is a cut-and-dried example. Parental awareness, enlightened law enforcement and the commitment of organizations to zero tolerance for child predators in their midst are effective means to battle child predation. Banning teachers from Facebook isn’t.