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'Show Me' Your Facebook Friends, Internet Filters

A recently passed Missouri law that restricts social networking relationships between teachers and students—even long after that student has left the classroom—is making local and national headlines.

The Huffington Post is reporting that the law, which was passed in mid July but has gained national attention this week, was created to ensure administrators and parents can monitor communication and prevent situations that may put students at risk, but not to prevent social networking between teachers and students on public sites like Facebook and Twitter. Yet some fear it will prevent just that, and our own Facebook research (meta much?) shows you all are divided on whether such interaction is appropriate.

The Kansas City Star says teachers are up in arms about a law they say over-reaches its intended purpose. And the Christian Science Monitor asks if it could prevent teachers from embracing the very tools that have been promoted as crucial to creating modern classrooms.

Despite the length of the document, formally named The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act after a woman who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a middle school teacher, the Huffington Post says its essence boils down to these two paragraphs:

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student.

This isn't the first and won't be the last regulation restricting social networking use in an educational content, though it may be the first to do so on a statewide level. (If you know of others, we'd love to hear about them). But I can't recall one I've seen that goes so far as to prevent relationships into the indefinite future. According to my understanding, the law could so far as to outlaw a private virtual relationship between a teacher and a student who may have long since grown up and joined adulthood. (I'm proud to call old teachers like Mr. Bock, Mr. Mick, Mr. Himes, and Mr. Raygor Facebook friends, though Mr. Raygor's football rants need to stop.)

It's important to note that the law makes a differentiation between work- and nonwork-related sites. In other words, a teacher would presumably be allowed to run a class website, or even operate a class forum in a public website, so long as that site is accessible to anyone who wishes to use it, including administrators and parents.

That's actually less draconian than some recently passed restrictions, including one in the 130,000-student Prince George's County (Md.) school district that bans the posting of any school-related photos by students on public social networking sites. But the toughest part for educators to swallow may be that it takes control away from local districts, who are being pushed to take ownership of their own Web policy by ed-tech advocates.

Filtering Folley

Meanwhile, the Missouri Research & Education Network, or MOREnet, a statewide consortium that includes filtering software among the services it provides to about 100 districts, said it will deactivate a feature that had blocked non-sexual content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) communities, according to a press release from the ACLU.

This is the first news in a while from the ACLU's national "Don't Filter Me" campaign, a letter-writing effort that threatens legal action against districts who block non-sexual LGBT content, based on the assertion that access to such content for should LGBT allies groups must be permitted based on the federal Equal Access Act.

And it illustrates that, just because filters can appear to be blocking material based on a political or social slant, it may not always be intentional. In this case, the Netsweeper filter provided by MOREnet had the option to filter for a category called "alternative lifestyles" that not only blocked sites supporting LGBT rights and education, but also those aimed at vegetarians and vegans.

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