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Teachers and Social Media: Rights and Responsibilities

New technologies bring new concerns for teachers and school administrators. Social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat have become integral parts of our lives. For public school teachers, the use of social media is an increasingly complex area. They must balance their First Amendment rights with professional responsibilities. Understanding the rights, responsibilities, and potential pitfalls in today's digital age is crucial.

Many teachers have been fired for posting certain social media content. What are their rights? What are the legal guidelines? Moreover, what can schools do in their policies to protect themselves and their students? How can they do so while respecting teachers' speech and employment rights?

There are two hurdles that any school district's social media policy needs to follow. First, there are the constitutional hurdles, as narrowed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Second, there are employment rights hurdles. This article discusses how these hurdles relate to teachers' rights regarding social media.

The First Amendment and Public School Teachers

Public school teachers, like all citizens, enjoy First Amendment rights. This includes free speech. These rights extend beyond the school gates. They enable teachers to express their views via personal social media accounts. But their First Amendment protection has certain limitations. These kick in when their speech conflicts with professional duties or disrupts the school environment.

An important case to consider is Pickering v. Board of Education (1968). The court's decision in Pickering establishes a test to determine when a teacher's free speech may be protected. This test originates from a case involving a high school teacher who was fired. He was fired after criticizing the school board's financial decisions in a public newspaper. The Supreme Court, agreeing that the teacher's First Amendment rights were violated, proposed the test.

First, the speech must be about a matter of legitimate public concern. Second, the teacher's right to free speech must also outweigh the school's interest in maintaining an effective learning environment. So, school officials can take disciplinary actions when a teacher's speech or actions on social media sites cause substantial disruption to the school. Or they may do this if the teacher's speech or actions infringes on the rights of others. Cyberbullying or sexual harassment via social media or text messages, for example, is not protected by the First Amendment.

In a later case decided in 2015, Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district's decision to suspend a teacher. She was suspended for posting derogatory comments about her students on a blog. These posts were made on the teachers' personal time and personal devices. But they were found to cause significant disruption within the school community. The court used the Pickering test to make this determination. The court, among other things, found that this blog was not protected speech because it impacted the teacher's professional responsibilities.

General Constitutional Protections: Minimized by the Supreme Court

If a teacher feels their speech rights were violated, they must first consider the constitutional test. Similarly, school districts that want to limit teachers' speech should also consider the test. But it's important to note that the speech made while performing official duties as a teacher is not completely protected. In fact, some people might argue that it hardly gets any protection at all.

In the Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) case, the Supreme Court made a big decision that impacts teachers' speech. A prosecutor questioned the honesty of the deputy sheriff. This led to his transfer and lack of promotion. The court decided that if public employees say something related to their job that can hurt their employer, they can be disciplined. This includes teachers. This means that if a teacher criticizes their school or district, and it could harm the school, they might face punishment or lose their job.

In another case, Connick v. Myers (1983), a lawyer was fired because she handed out a questionnaire accusing a district attorney's office of being badly managed. Here, the court noted the difference between talking about private work matters and "matters of public concern." Private work matters are not protected while matters of public concern are. The office's internal management was not a matter of public concern. But a tweet about a political election might be protected.

So, what is the best practice for lawyers? If you use social media, you should include disclaimers. These disclaimers should note that your speech is your opinion. You should note that it is not related to your employment. Also, only speak about work if the speech is protected.

Protecting Public Employees' Speech Trends

The Supreme Court has been careful about not giving too much protection to the speech of public employees acting in their job roles, like teachers. But the National Labor Relations Board thinks differently about workers in general. They've said no to employers' social media rules that they think are too limiting.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) started a trend in 2012. They said Costco's social media policy was overly broad. Since then, they've made similar decisions about company rules. Their main point is that policies shouldn't limit what is known as "Section 7" speech. They can't restrict this speech explicitly or implicitly. Under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, employees have certain rights. They can come together, join, or help labor groups, and choose representatives. They can also work together for collective bargaining.

When the NLRB decided against Costco, they created a rule that protects a lot of what employees say under Section 7. Under the Act, "[T]he appropriate inquiry is whether the rule would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights." If the rule explicitly restricts Section 7 speech, it's invalid. Additionally, suppose employees would reasonably read the rule to constrict Section 7 speech. In that case, it's invalid if the rule was passed in response to union activity or is being used to attack Section 7 speech.

To sum it up: teachers' tweets about working conditions, union activity, and things of that nature are typically protected by Section 7. Yet, there is a grey area. An employee's speech criticizing or mocking an employer may not be protected. It is clear then that employees should exercise much caution with what they say on their social networking sites.

School Policies and the Code of Ethics: Guiding Teacher Behavior

Every state's education law and board of education might have special rules. They may create guidelines on how teachers should use social media. For example, they may tell teachers to use strong privacy settings. This prevents non-"friends" from seeing your account, like students. Or they may suggest that teachers not become friends with students on social media sites. This includes "following" students on these platforms. These school rules aim to keep the teacher-student relationship safe and professional, both at school and online.

The Code of Ethics for Educators also applies to social media use. It does not mention social media directly. But it does stress that teachers should keep a professional relationship with students. Using social media the wrong way could violate this professional relationship.

Teachers' Rights: A Balancing Act

Teachers must find a balance between their First Amendment rights and their jobs as public school employees. They need to be careful with how they use social media. They must keep in mind federal law and local school board policies. They should also consider educational law and professional ethics.

Teachers who believe someone violated their rights can go to court. They will be plaintiffs in their case against the school district. But the court will balance a teacher's case against the school's need to have a good learning environment. Figuring out how to protect teachers' rights while also keeping the school a good place for learning is a tricky and challenging part of education today.

Have Your Rights Been Violated?

For school districts, it's tough to make a rule that keeps them safe from harmful social media posts but also protects teachers' rights. For teachers, the NLRB is still figuring out which kind of speech the National Labor Relations Act protects.

Districts and unions might be aware of the latest in this fast-changing area of law. You should know your district's policy. If you think someone has violated your rights, it might be a good idea to talk to a lawyer. If you feel like a district rule is making you limit speech that should be protected, you should consider speaking to a lawyer.

Talk with an employment attorney or education attorney about your case today.

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