Earlier this month, a New Jersey appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a tenured teacher for comments she made about her students on Facebook. Good summaries of the case, In re O’Brien, can be found through the National School Boards Association and Education Week (subscriber access only). But the case warrants a closer look for school leaders and employees who wish to better understand First Amendment protections of school-employee speech on the internet. Although the school district was allowed to dismiss the teacher in this situation, where she criticized her young students in an inflammatory way, there is a blurry line between protected and unprotected employee online speech that administrators must be careful to understand. Below are a summary of the facts in the case, the relevant legal standard and its application to O’Brien’s situation, and some lessons that school administrators and employees can learn from the ruling.
In 2010-2011, Jennifer O’Brien was a veteran teacher with over a decade of experience in the Paterson, New Jersey public schools. At the start of the 2010-2011 school year, Paterson unexpectedly was assigned to teach first grade at a new school that was predominately comprised of minority students, including African-Americans and Latinos. All of the students in her class, in fact, were either Latino or African-American.
O’Brien began to believe that six or seven of the students in her class had behavioral problems, which were having an adverse impact on her classroom environment. One student struck her, another stole money from her and other students, and some students hit each other.
O’Brien responded to these issues by sending disciplinary referrals to the school administrators on several occasions, but she thought the referrals had not been addressed adequately. O’Brien then posted two posts on her Facebook page relating to the issues:
“I’m not a teacher—I’m a warden for future criminals!”
“They had a scared straight program in school—why couldn’t [I] bring [first] graders?”
O’Brien said she posted the statement that her students were “future criminals” because of the behavior of some – but not all – of the students, not because of their race or ethnicity. News of her posts spread quickly throughout the school district, however. Two angry parents went to her principal’s office to express their outrage, and one parent threatened to remove her child from school. The school also received at least a dozen irate phone calls. Twenty to 25 people gathered outside the school to protest because of the statements, and news reporters and camera crews from major news organizations descended upon the school. At the next Home-School Council meeting, the majority of the meeting was devoted to O’Brien’s posts and parents expressed their outrage over the posts. When O’Brien was made aware of the outrage against her posts, she was surprised that her posts had led to such a reaction. (more…)
A recent Illinois Attorney General opinion addressed an interesting question: Can a public entity delete comments by community members from its Facebook page? Although the public entity at issue was a municipality, the opinion raises a number of interesting issues for public schools. The Attorney General addressed the question under the Illinois Open Meetings Act (the OMA), and found no violation under that specific law. But, if a court were to address the issue under the First Amendment of the federal Constitution, it is less clear that the public body would prevail. Notably, the First Amendment issue – discussed in part 3 below – is relevant even for school districts outside of Illinois. The decision is a warning to public entities, including school districts, across the country to carefully consider the basis of a decision to delete a user comment from a social networking page.
The opinion centered around criticism by a community member about a village’s Facebook page. An article in the Daily Herald provides the back story. The page came under scrutiny after the village trustee, who maintains the village’s Facebook page, deleted some items and comments from the page. As with most Facebook “fan” pages, users are allowed to comment on the “wall” of the page, but those comments can be deleted unilaterally by the person who maintains the page. The trustee justified the deletions by pointing to an uptick in negative comments and to complaints by other community members that they were reluctant to subscribe to the Facebook page because of negative comments.
The community member that brought the action, a former part-time police officer of the village, was one of the individuals whose comments were deleted. He complained on his blog about his comments being removed. In one post, he said that he would “be exploring remedies for [the village’s] action of censorship on a ‘supposed’ public site.” The Attorney General request for review appears to have been the individual’s first efforts at finding such a remedy.
Another hot topic that came up at our TechCon 2012 presentation on social media policies (which I blogged about earlier this month here) is whether to allow teachers to use social media in the classroom. Reports about why social media belongs in the classroom (such as this one from NBC News, which was later picked up by the Huffington Post) make compelling points about the need to meet students where they are and teach them how to use (and responsibly use) technology such as social networking. But there are serious legal concerns school districts should consider. At the conference, we discussed some of these concerns.
Age Appropriate Behavior?
For instance, some students, particularly at the elementary level, may be too young to establish a page on a social media website without violating the terms and conditions of the website. Teachers shouldn’t use social media pages for classroom activities if student participation would violate those sites’ policies. Our conclusion on this point: teachers probably should not be allowed to use any social media websites that have age restrictions for younger students. That means no Facebook, friends. Does that mean there must be a brick wall between elementary school students and technology? Not at all. There are fantastic free social media tools for teachers out there that are not open to the public in the same way as Facebook, and so do not have the same age restrictions.
We also discussed that teachers’ use of personal social networking websites can create issues for schools that need to supervise or investigate such use. This is especially true in states like Illinois that have laws prohibiting public employers from asking for passwords to social networking accounts, even if they are used for a business purpose. School districts in Illinois and other states with similar laws may find themselves in a bind if they need to access the social media websites to investigate misconduct, for litigation purposes or to respond to a public records request. Notably, the Illinois law suggests that public employers can’t even ask for information from social networking pages of employees. This could prohibit school districts from asking teachers to make their personal social networking pages accessible to administrators when used for classroom purposes. I wrote on this topic in the most recent issue of the Illinois Association of School Board Journal in an article titled Locked out…Strategies for complying with the Facebook Password Law.
Now, there are arguably very good reasons for locking school administrators (and other employees) out of employees’ personal social networking websites. Another education blogger, @mcleod, made the analogy on my Twitter profile between laws like the Facebook Password Law and laws against wiretapping educators’ phones. If employees are choosing to use personal media or their personal telephones for personal use, I think there are very few (if any) who would suggest that school administrators should have access to those personal methods of communication. Simply because you sign up to be a public teacher should not mean that you give up all rights to a private personal life.
But once a teacher chooses to use those private, personal methods of communication to communicate with students on school business, I think their right to privacy must end. The Illinois Facebook Password Law does not recognize this reasonable distinction, and raises serious concerns as to how school districts can respond if they have a legitimate need to access school-related content on a teacher’s personal social networking account.
The easiest way to get around these concerns, and a good practice even in states that do not have Facebook password laws, is to have teachers create a “group” page on social media using their business e-mail account. In those cases, the page is arguably that of the school district and so does not fall under the prohibition in Facebook password laws. The use of a business account also helps prevent the line-blurring that can occur when a teacher uses her personal social media account with students. It can be hard to tell teachers and students that the teacher is an authority figure, not a friend, when the two are friends on personal social networking programs.
A recent @IlPrincipals tweet identified an interesting USA Today article: “Should parents ‘friend’ their child’s teacher?” At this time of year when social media policies, procedures and guidelines are being reviewed across the country, another important question school leaders should ask is what they should do if such “friendships” occur.
The “Parental Paparazzi”
Perhaps the most important thing school leaders should do is to educate teachers of the risks they face if they agree to such “friendships.” If teachers and parents become “friends,” and the parent brings in evidence of what they believe to be misconduct by the teacher on his or her social networking website, the school district may be able to – or even have to – discipline the teacher for that online activity.
It’s not true, as one commentator suggested on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, that “anything that a parent might object to in your life can be the basis of discipline.” But there are risks from what is becoming known as the “parental paparazzi.” Teachers should be informed that if they agree to online relationships with parents, they are potentially opening their lives to the “paparazzi.” (more…)