Social Networking and School Employees
Remember Ashley Payne? She is one of the many teachers who gained national notoriety for their social networking.
In Payne’s 2009 lawsuit, she claimed her supervisors forced her to resign because of what she had posted on her Facebook page. What was so controversial? Was it that she called her students “germ bags” and their parents “arrogant” and “snobby”? Or had she said, “I’m not a teacher—I’m a warden for future criminals”? Maybe she was taking a controversial political stance like condemning homosexuality as a “sin” that “breeds like cancer”?
No, these statements got other school employees in hot water, but Payne’s transgression was apparently more about the pictures than about what she had posted online.
So, now you may be thinking Payne posted nude pictures—like maybe a shot of her topless while kissing her girlfriend or at a Bachelorette party posed next to a stripper? No, those online photos were why other teachers have been disciplined. So, what was the outrageous, controversial content of Payne’s pictures?
She was holding a mug of beer and a glass of wine.
It may be shocking that something legal that occurred off-campus and off-duty could cause such a stir—especially considering Payne claims she took special precautions by ensuring her page was private and by not “friending” any students. You may be equally surprised to hear Payne’s lawsuit remains unresolved. In April 2013, Payne did not prevail in her lawsuit against the district, but she has filed a notice of appeal.
One legal issue that distinguishes Payne’s case is her lawsuit focuses more on due process violations than free expression violations. However, other teachers who have been dismissed for social networking have not prevailed after arguing that their free speech rights were violated.
The story of Ashley Payne is at one end of the continuum; whereas, there are plenty of school employees posting comments, blogs, pictures and videos that are worthy of reprimand and a few teachers who undoubtedly should be dismissed for their cyber-behavior. For example, a California band teacher pled guilty to sexual misconduct after sending more than 1200 private Facebook messages to a student.
When faced with situations ranging from mildly unprofessional conduct to serious sexual misconduct, it is no easy task to determine how schools ought to react to employees’ social networking. Administrators are confronted with the difficult responsibility of balancing school employees’ constitutional rights, safeguarding the image of teachers as role models, and preventing inappropriate employee-student relationships.
One way school leaders can respond to this challenge is by staying abreast of the constantly evolving law surrounding social media. Because of the prolific media attention surrounding employees and social networking, there are numerous articles, webinars and presentations on the topic. For example, on Thursday, June 20th, the Indiana University (IU) School of Education will host a law panel about “Social Media, the First Amendment and Public Schools.” I will participate on the panel with Suzanne Eckes, associate professor at IU School of Education; Martha McCarthy, Chancellor's Professor Emeritus at IU School of Education and Presidential Professor at Loyola Marymount University; Dave Emmert, attorney for the Indiana State School Boards Association; and Seamus Boyce, attorney at Church, Church, Hittle and Antrim.
I hope you can join us, but if not, I think we may have at least one EdJurist in the audience who may blog or tweet about the conversation!