Free speech: Teachers sue Florida school district for social media policy

Some Florida teachers are suing their district in state court on the grounds that a proposed Manatee school district policy violates their free speech rights by prohibiting social media postings of negative comments or photos about the district, employees or students from home or work computers. -db

Bradenton Herald
November 13, 2010
By Richard Dymond

MANATEE, Florida — The teachers union in Manatee County filed a lawsuit Friday challenging the constitutionality of a proposed Manatee school district policy governing how teachers use Facebook and other social networking websites.

The lawsuit by the Manatee Education Association asserts that the policy would violate teachers’ freedom of speech rights.

The action comes 45 days after the school district came up with a proposed policy that would prohibit teachers from posting negative statements or photos about the district, employees or students from their home or work computers on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The policy would also require teachers to get written permission from parents if they want to communicate with students on those websites, or by personal e-mail.

At the time, school board chairwoman Jane Pfeilsticker voiced concern about the district infringing on First Amendment rights, stating, “This is pretty untested water and I would love to see how other districts have dealt with this without any freedom of speech issues arriving in a lawsuit.”

In the 18-page suit, filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, the Manatee Education Association and its president, Pat Barber, allege that proposed policy 4.7, “prohibits speech on matters of public concert in a manner which violates the First Amendment, United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 4, Florida Constitution.”

When he discovered the district had been sued by the teachers union Friday, school board attorney John Bowen said he was disappointed.

“I am disappointed this wasn’t handled in a manner that would not have involved spending the public’s money on litigation,” Bowen said.

Bowen also called the teachers union action “premature.”

The union in October filed a complaint with the state claiming the proposed policy violates a teacher’s right to privacy and speech. The state has not issued a ruling on the complaint.

The union had asked the state Division of Administrative Hearings’ judicial board to rule against the proposed policy.

School board members were slated to vote on the policy proposal Oct. 25, but it was pulled from the school board agenda after the union approached the state for a ruling.

“Challenging the constitutionality of this doesn’t make sense when we don’t know what the final form of the rule will take,” Bowen said. “I think it is extremely premature.”

A call to Barber was not returned by press time.

Bowen said the school district will petition to move the case to federal court since it is involves the U.S. Constitution.

Bowen said he stands behind earlier statements that he made that restricting teacher’s use of the social media does not violate their rights, but only reminds them they are bound to a code of ethics.

“The school board’s position on this is that we are not changing anything,” Bowen said. “What we are saying to teachers is that when they communicate, in whatever manner, from a conversation on the street, on the beach, in a classroom, or in a chat room, they are bound by the a code of ethics built around the principles of the teaching profession.”

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