KANSAS CITY, Mo. —A new law regulating how Missouri teachers communicate with their students on Facebook and other social media websites suffered a double-barreled setback Friday.
A Cole County circuit judge issued an injunction blocking the law from taking effect on Sunday. And Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said he will ask lawmakers during a special session next month to strip out the bill's most controversial provisions, including the one the judge ruled on.
Judge Jon Beetem said the new regulation — intended to protect students from sexual predators in schools — would have a "chilling effect" on free speech rights.
"The breadth of the prohibition is staggering," Beetem wrote in his ruling.
He placed the law on hold until Feb. 20, adding that would allow time for a hearing on whether it should be permanently blocked.
The bill, known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, was named for a woman who said she was manipulated into a sexual relationship with a teacher while in junior high school. The measure unanimously passed the House and Senate, and Nixon signed it into law in July.
But it immediately attracted attention from national and international media, which interpreted the law as meaning teachers could not become "friends" with students or contact them in any way on Facebook.
The American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns that the language was so restrictive that teachers could not legally open an account on any social networking sites that students use.
However, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jane Cunningham, maintained the law was aimed only at stopping private communication between teachers and students. Any communication that could be seen by a third party, such as writing on a student's Facebook "wall," was not affected, she said.
But teacher groups complained that the law was confusing and said they were beginning the school year unsure about what exactly was legal or illegal. They said communicating to students through various Internet sites had become common because that's what students prefer.
One education group, the Missouri National Education Association, said Friday that it was "pleased that Governor Nixon and the court agree with our members that this portion of the new law needs to be fixed."
Another education group, the Missouri State Teachers Association, initially supported the bill but filed a lawsuit last week arguing that the law was overly broad and violated First Amendment rights. Beetem ruled on that suit Friday.
The teachers association's lawyer, David Moen of Jefferson City, applauded the judge's action and said the lawsuit would become moot if the General Assembly repealed the sections that Nixon listed.