Louisiana joins “technophobia” craze with restraints on teacher-student communications

Louisiana’s effort to deter inappropriate personal relationships between school employees and students may have a significant, and perhaps unforeseen, chilling impact on newsgathering by high school journalists.

Act 214, enacted by the 2009 Louisiana legislature with the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal, prohibits school employees from using school phones, e-mail accounts or other school communication equipment to communicate with students unless the communication is “related to … educational services.” Any employee who uses a non-school phone, e-mail account or other electronic means to contact a student must report that communication to the school district. The law directs each local school board to enact rules setting forth the details as to how such communications will be logged and what the logs must contain.

Voting against such a proposal undoubtedly could be spun by political opponents into a vote for child molestation, so it is unsurprising that the bill by state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, passed handily. But in their zeal to cleanse Louisiana of perverted e-mails, legislators also made it substantially more difficult for student journalists to do their jobs properly.

Good newsgathering depends on the assistance of anonymous whistle-blowers, and school workers — who themselves lack First Amendment protection to speak out publicly about their working conditions — sometimes rely on student journalists to alert the public to issues of concern. Needless to say, teachers who wish to disclose unflattering information about their schools will not use school e-mail accounts to do so — and now, in Louisiana, they incur extreme peril if they use any means of communication other than perhaps snail-mail. They risk retaliation if they accurately report the communication, and they risk firing if they don’t.

School districts have the opportunity to leaven the destructive impact of this law by enacting common-sense policies that exempt from disclosure communications with the student media, and any states tempted to follow Louisiana’s lead should learn from this unfortunate omission.

Fortunately for those aggrieved by the Louisiana law, it almost certainly will be struck down as unconstitutional if challenged. Limiting the use of school communication devices to messages “related to … educational services” is fatally vague. Does it mean that a teacher who e-mails “get well soon” to a hospitalized student has now committed a firing offense? And a law that penalizes a “Happy Valentines Day” text-message but not a hand-delivered valentine has no rational relation to its stated goal of prohibiting illicit relationships. Act 214 is simply one of the many examples of a blanket restraint on educators’ use of technology arising more from phobia than fact.