Friday, December 10, 2010

Educational Use of Social Media: Some Logistics and Legal Concerns

What should you consider if you are going to establish a Facebook page for your school or district? Are there any possible legal pitfalls for having and maintaining a social media presence? How can you make sure staff members who are using a social media presence to promote the school, district, or their classroom are not violating the law or propriety? As schools and school districts try to establish a social media presence, there are some potential legal issues to consider as well as logistic issues.
Establishing a social media presence is important in the 21st century, because that environment is where an increasing number of our constituents and community spend their time. Just walk through the business section of the bookstore today, and you will now find a whole section of books that focus on social media and marketing. Businesses have learned that social media environments like Facebook are just another way to promote themselves and their products and services. Schools and school districts can benefit from that promotion too, but there are special considerations for these organizations that do not necessarily apply to businesses.
The first group of considerations are the legal ones. This article from the National Law Review “Legal Issues for a School Board to Consider Before Creating or Approving a Facebook Page,” and this presention posted by lawyer Daliah Saper on Slideshare “Legal Implications of Social Media” does an excellent job of describing the legal landmines school organizations must navigate around. Here’s a summary of those considerations:
  • Freedom of Speech and Public Forum Issues: Case law obviously grants individuals the free speech right to post or speak in any context that could be regarded as a public forum. Some lawyers argue that one might be able to make the case that allowing open comments on a social media page could be considered a public forum. The implications of this would mean that deleting and removing comments that were deemed inappropriate or unsatisfactory by the school district would be seen as censorship and a violation of the poster’s first amendment rights. School administrators would do well to consider this argument, and any procedures regarding the removal of material posted as comments, if they allow comment posting at all.
  • Public Records Laws: While no court has yet to issue an opinion regarding whether a social media page is public record, because it is published by a public institution, one could possibly make this argument. In light of this, schools and school districts need to possibly consider processes for archiving information posted on such sites.
  • Open Meetings Laws: This concern would mainly apply to school board communications. According to the National Law Review, it is conceivable that three or more members could post comments or opinions on a district Facebook site. It is possible the argument could be made that this constitutes a violation of open meeting laws.
  • Confidentiality Laws: Federal and state law limits the disclosure of personally identifiable student information. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) prohibits the disclosure of health information of both students and employees. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the privacy of students’ educational records. It is possible that someone would post information in violation of these two laws. It might be important for schools to have processes and procedures in place to make sure information posted is monitored and removed if found in violation.
  • Student Discipline Issues: If a school or district allows postings or comments, it would be possible for a student to post controversial, harassing, disrespectful or other undesired comments on the page. There may be some legal issues regarding whether the school or district has a right to remove such comments because it might be argued that those comments are protected speech.
  • Copyright Laws: Facebook pages and other social media environments are based on the idea of sharing both written comments and other media Because of this, it is possible that someone using a district social media page could post some media item violating copyright law. Again, the district would need some kind of monitoring to ensure that copyrighted material is not posted on its social media site.
  • Badmouthing School or School District: For lack of a better word, “badmouthing” seems to describe when an employee posts derogatory comments about a school or school district on a social media site. While arguments could be made that such postings are free speech, schools and school districts need to be prepared for how they will respond to these postings.
  • Social Media Sites Used to Harass Others: The act of allowing employees use of social media, may mean that they will post comments that could be seen as abusive and harassing. Schools and districts need to have plans and procedures in place for how they will respond to these comments.
With these issues in mind, here are some additional questions to consider regarding the  use of a school or district social media page:
  • Are you going to allow comments on your social media pages?
  • How are you going to archive postings on your social media page?
  • What guidelines and policies will be in place to address the posting and comments of board members on social media pages?
  • How are you going to make sure confidential information will not be posted in violation of FERPA and HIPPA?
  • Who will monitor postings on school and district social media pages to make sure confidential material is promptly removed?
  • How will abuse and improper use of the social media pages by students and staff be handled?
  • What is the plan to ensure that information or postings on your social media pages are not in violation of copy right laws?
  • How will the school district and administration respond to postings that are highly critical of administration?
  • How will the school of district handle the use of social media pages to harass others?
Here are some logistical considerations for schools and school districts looking at using social media:
  • Who owns the social media page? If that page is used by a district employee for the official business of the school system, does it not belong to the school district?
  • What policies will guide employees in the use of personal social media accounts in conducting official school and district business? The best advice is that no employee will use a personal social media site to conduct school or district business. To do so causes a lot of questions about privacy and public information. This will also take care of the issue of whether teachers should friend students on Facebook sites.
  • What procedures are in place to ensure that passwords and log-ins to official school and district pages are provided to the right people? Is the district going to have one person who manages access to these social media sites?
  • Who will monitor all social media sites for the district?
  • Will the district have a clear social media policy?
In this age, having a social media presence is important for schools and districts. But because schools are government entities, there are legal and logistical considerations that other organizations do not have. Here are some additional posts and resources on the use of social media by educational organizations.

Interesting Resources for Social Media in Schools

Legal Issues for a School Board to Consider Before Creating and Approving a Facebook Page
Twitter and Facebook: The New Tools of Productivity or Distraction
Slideshare Document: Government and Social Media-The Legal Issues to Consider
Slideshare Presentation: Legal Implications of Social Media

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