The Muskegon Chronicle (“Personal drinking photos could get teachers fired in Muskegon”) and Michigan Education Report (“More districts eye social media policies”) have reported that the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District has adopted an extraordinarily-restrictive new social media policy (available here courtesy of the Muskegon Chronicle).
The policy implies consequences (ie firing) if any content appears online that shows “use of alcohol, drugs or anything students are prohibited from doing” (students are prohibited from using profanity – so apparently if you tweet the F-bomb that can get you canned). The policy was crafted and adopted at the advice of at the advice of the MAISD legal counsel (which should be the first sign that the policy is problematic; lawyers and social media don’t mix).
Here are some specific problems with the policy (which is very reminiscent of the ban on contact that the Missouri Legislature just repealed):
1. We Don’t Control What is Posted Online
From the policy section titled “Appropriate Use of Social Media”:
“Employees are personally responsible for thet content of any social media they create, copy or publish online. Employees who post to social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube which includes inappropriate information such as, but not limited to: provacative photographs or images, sexually explicit messages, use of alcohol, drugs or anything students are prohibited from doing, will be held responsible for their actions.”
As social media platforms have grown, the algorithms that underwrite how content is generated now pull a variety of content we have no control over into our data streams. People can tag us in photos, status updates, or check-ins at locations without our approval – all of which could result in disciplinary action against MAISD employees.
An employee could completely abstain from social media altogether and conduct themselves in a private manner, but still have objectionable behavior disclosed online through no fault of their own – as this woman in England discovered when she was prosecuted for a rant someone had taped while she was on a tram:
Hypothetical Examples: While it’s easy to condemn the behavior above, consider: what if video from a wedding reception showing a teacher participating in a champagne toast was published on YoutTube to be shared with friends and family? – That could constitute termination under this policy. If an MAISD employee has a friend who publishes anything racy or “inappropriate” (whatever that means) – that content could inadvertently show up on the user’s Facebook profile simply because of the association with the friend. Take, for example, a racy profile photo (and profile photos change over time). OR, a friend could check in at a wine tasting event using Facebook Places or Foursquare and posted a message tagging you.
2. It Makes Arbitrary Distinctions Between Forms of Communication
Bits of data are bits of data. We need to stop thinking of calls from a landline as different from text messages or “likes” on Facebook. They’re all acts of communiation facilitated electronically and the only thing that differentiates any of them is how “rich” they are (in terms of allowing nonverbal detail as part of the message).
Inappropriate contact between teachers and students is inappropriate contact REGARDLESS of how it happens. Doubtless the MAISD Employee Handbook already has standards outlining what is inappropriate and what the consequences are. Nothing needs to change because of the advent of social media.
There’s another problematic aspect of the policy later on under “Phone and Email Communications”:
“Employees should not communicate with students using personal email accounts. All electronic communication with students should be conducted through a District-managed email account.”
Hypothethical Examples: Smartphones have become an critical part of any professional’s toolkit and they present some interesting challenges to the enforceability of this policy:
- What if I accidentally forget to switch my smartphone’s internet access from my mobile phone service to the wireless network provided by the school? – If I use my phone to send a message to a student in the former case it’s a violation. The latter, it’s not.
- Most smartphones allow users to send email using multiple email accounts, though they typically default to one. What if a teacher accidentally sent out a message to a student using their personal email because they forgot they had changed the default setting?
See where this is going?
3. The Policy is Already Outdated
Back in September 2011, Facebook added the “Subscribe” button to user profiles. This allows users to subscribe to the updates of other users without friending them. From the policy:
“When a teacher and a student become ‘friends’ in an online environment, the dynamic between them is forever changed. An invisible line between professional and personal is crossed.”
Notwithstanding the utter lunacy of this premise (‘friending’ someone in no way constitutes an actual friendship – nor does it irreparably change an existing relationship), subscribing to status updates – or even just leaving a profile public (which could result in the same negative consequences the MAISD is attempting to guard against) isn’t included in this description of verboten contact with students.
4. So Much for Drama Club
The policy also observes different standards based on the activity type. So, for example:
“Examples of unprofessional and inappropriate relationship communications include, but are not limited to […] calling students on cell phones or allowing students to make personal calls to them unrelated to homework, class work, athletics; […]”
So what about Art Club? Performing Arts Ensembles? Drama Club? Forensics Club? – Guess those students are out of luck if they want to have any contact with the teachers who organize those groups.
5. No Distinctions Made on Time
As Doc Brown constantly had to remind Marty McFly “you’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally!” Time is an important component to everything online – particularly now that so much of what is published is cached ‘forever.’ Social media networks have been around since SixDegrees.com launched in 1997 – and there is already a wealth of content about us online. According to this policy, any teacher that ever published anything objectionable is at risk of being fired.
Hypothetical Examples: What if a photography teacher published a study of nudes for their portfolio in college? What if a home economics teacher writes a blog about craft beer in their spare time? What if an English teacher were a published author of a work of fiction (available for sale on Amazon) that contained violence or profanity? – All fireable offenses no matter when they were published under this policy.
6. The Policy Conflicts With Established Legal Precedent
In the section titled “Phone and Email Communications” this portion is actually out-of-step with court precedent:
“Employee[s] should be aware that all communications engaged in by an employee using a District-owned network, including personal, non-work related communications, may be subject to FOIA.”
Not true. While much of what is done by any public entity is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, some things are not – like personnel records. In total, there are nine things not subject to FOIA (as outlined in Title 5 of the US Code). The relevant ones to public schools include:
- things “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency”
- “personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”
There’s a good case study that hints to the level of complexity with digital communication – Stengart v. LovingCare Agency, Inc. (March 30, 2010).
In this case, Marina Stengart was working as Executive Director of Nursing at Loving Care, Inc. and filed grievances against her employer. Toward the end of her employment with the company, she communicated with her lawyers on a work-issued laptop BUT using a personal, password-protected Yahoo! email address. When she turned in her laptop during her separation from the company, the IT department dug through the hard drive and was able to pull up emails between Stengart and her lawyers that were saved in the cache of her web browser. The court ultimately determined that Loving Care, Inc. had no right to access those emails because occasional personal use of work equipment and networks was permitted and Stengart had made reasonable attempts to ensure privacy in those personal communications.
Another problem with this policy are the First Amendment implications. Many high school students are legal adults; they can associate with whomever they choose outside of school. What if a teacher were a precinct coordinator for a political candidate and the student were a volunteer? – Contact they might have through the various mediums political organizers use would be banned.
If a college buddy posts a photo of you drinking during a homecoming tailgater years ago – you could technically be fired under this ham-fisted policy.
Or, what if someone takes a tweet or Facebook status update out of context (ie appearing to endorse behavior prohibited for students)?
The Real Loss: MAISD Policy Ignores the Better Angels of Our Nature
What is most tragic about this policy is that it stands only a marginal chance of preventing damage to the MAISD’s reputation by assuming the worst about people (which is rarely the case).
What isn’t being considered in the implementation of this policy is the opportunity cost. That is to say – what is being sacrificed by turning employees into social media teetotalers? (…and make no mistake – that is the intent of this policy; it’s so vaguely-worded that it basically prohibits all social media activity.)
I guarantee your employees are doing far more GOOD things than BAD things. What you’re not factoring in is all of the benefit from having employees as ambassadors to the community; broadening their networks of friends and colleagues, doing volunteer work, or any of a number of other things companies pay public relations firms to manufacture for them.
The other problem this policy sets up is to discourage employees from participating in (and understanding) social media. Given how quickly social media became a ubiquitous feature of the working world – this is truly a disadvantage to all students. Teachers should be encouraged to experiment and grow their use of social media so that they can incorporate it into the education process (as it has myriad benefits).
Hopefully the MAISD is open to the idea of reconsidering the policy. Perhaps the best place to start would be to see how short they could possibly make the policy (to avoid getting down into the weeds which resulted in a number of the problems detailed above). Why couldn’t the social media policy for employees be as simple as this?: “All standards for employee conduct detailed in the handbook apply to online activity.”
That should be the ideal; something simple and easily-understood. Focus on training employees to be literate in social media rather than on enforcing a very restrictive policy.