Fla. district considers restricting what teachers can say online

FLORIDA — The Manatee County School Board discussed a policyMonday that, if passed, would limit what teachers can say on social networkingsites like Facebook and Twitter.

The policy would prohibit teachers from posting comments that could put thedistrict, teachers or students in a “negative, scandalous or embarrassinglight.”

The policy would also require teachers to obtain permission fromstudents’ parents in order to interact with students on social networkingsites.

Bruce Proud, Manatee Education Association business agent, said theorganization met with the district superintendent last week to discuss someconcerns with the policy’s wording in regard to teachers’ right toprivacy and right to freedom of speech.

Proud said the MEA offered up alternative wording and is having the policyreviewed by an attorney to see if there are any procedural or legal issues.

“We’re waiting for the recommendations of the attorney and thenwe’ll see what course we should take,” Proud said.

John Bowen, an attorney for the Manatee County School District, said noevent in particular spurred the creation of the policy, but the SarasotaHerald Tribune reported that a middle school teacher from Manatee County was recently suspendedafter he posted that he hated his students and his job on Facebook.

“We just wanted to make it clear that they are still subject to thesame codes of ethics at home that they are subject to at work,” Bowensaid.

Bowen said this is becoming a nationwide issue and the school board haslooked at several other policies to help develop its own.

“We’re struggling on how to develop an effective policy anddon’t want to violate people’s First Amendment rights,” hesaid.

David Hudson, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, said he’sseeing these kinds of policies more and more frequently.

“School officials are saying that [teachers’ comments] can havea detrimental impact on the job,” he said.

Hudson said it’s often difficult for teachers to prove their FirstAmendment rights have been violated.

“Normally you have to show that you are speaking as a private citizennot a public employee,” he said. “Then, in your off-duty, onlinespeech you have to show you’re speaking on a matter of public concern. Andyou have to show your free speech rights are not disruptive to theworkplace.”

The board is scheduled to vote on the policy Oct. 25.