It’s not just students who can get into difficulty for school-related blogging.

In a recent case, a federal court rejected a challenge brought by a non-tenured teacher when the public school at which he taught decided not to renew his contract. The school had accused the teacher of overly familiar contacts with students via his MySpace page that were deemed “disruptive to school activities.”

Spanierman v. Hughes

In Spanierman v. Hughes, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69569 (D. Conn. Sept. 16, 2008), Jeffrey Spanierman, a teacher at Emmett O’Brien High School in Ansonia, Connecticut, created a MySpace page, ostensibly “to communicate with students about homework, to learn more about the students so he could relate to them better, and to conduct casual, non-school related discussions.”

One of Spanierman’s school colleagues became concerned about the page, which she said contained, among other things, pictures of naked men with “inappropriate comments” underneath them. She was also concerned about the nature of the personal conversations that the teacher was having with the students, and she convinced Spanierman to remove the page, which she considered “disruptive to students.” Spanierman subsequently created a new MySpace page, however, that included similar content and similar personal communications with students. When the colleague learned of the new page, she reported it to the school administration, which placed Spanierman on administrative leave and ultimately declined to renew his teaching contract for the following year. After hearings that he attended with his union representative and later with his attorneys, he received a letter stating that he had “exercised poor judgment as a teacher.”

Legal Issues

The discipline of a teacher for conduct outside the classroom raises a number of legal issues, depending upon the circumstances: Is the school public or private? Did the teacher have a contract with the school that gives the teacher rights with respect to job termination? Are there state statutes that impose standards on the teacher, or obligations on the school with respect to teacher discipline? Did the conduct involve expression that may be protected by the First Amendment? Did the conduct have a connection to the school environment?

Spanierman was employed by a public school, consequently, the school’s ability to take disciplinary action was limited by both the federal and state constitutions, in particular the First Amendment and the “due process” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Spanierman claimed that both his “procedural” and his “substantive” due process rights were violated.

As a non-tenured teacher, Spanierman was more vulnerable to the school’s evaluation of his conduct than a tenured teacher might have been.

The nature of the “procedure” to which an individual is entitled under the due process clause depends upon the nature of the right the individual is claiming. The minimum procedure to which an individual is usually entitled is notice and an opportunity to be heard. Spanierman based his procedural due process claim on the Connecticut Teacher Tenure Act, which he claimed gave him certain procedural rights, i.e., a period of notice and a hearing, and termination only for just cause. The court found that Spanierman had received notice and a hearing, but that neither the Connecticut Statute nor the teacher’s union-negotiated agreement required a showing of just cause for a decision not to renew a non-tenured teacher’s contract.

A claim of substantive due process focuses on the nature of the action taken by government rather than the procedure by which it is undertaken, i.e., whether the governmental action is arbitrary or without justification. The court also rejected Spanierman’s substantive due process claim that the public school’s action was arbitrary, egregious and outrageous, again relying on Spanierman’s non-tenured status, and the fact that non-renewal of a non-tenured teacher’s contract was the type of event specifically anticipated in the union-negotiated employment agreement.

Selective Prosecution?

Apparently, Spanierman was not the only teacher in the school with a MySpace page. Accordingly, he made a “selective prosecution” argument, pointing to two other teachers at his school who also had MySpace pages but who had not been disciplined. Spanierman argued that he had been treated differently than his colleagues in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection clause. The court dismissed that claim on purely legal and on factual grounds, i.e., that Spanierman failed to show that the other teachers had contact with students via their MySpace pages. Consequently, the court concluded, the situations of the other teachers were not analogous to Spanierman’s (they were not “similarly situated”) and therefore he had not been treated differently in comparison to them.

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Spanierman’s free speech claim was rejected as well. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that both students and teachers retain free speech rights in the school environment, those rights are not unrestricted. See, for example, Morse v. Frederick, 127 S. Ct. 2618 (2007), the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case, where the U.S. Supreme Court famously upheld the discipline of a student for unfurling a banner containing a pro-drug message at a school-sponsored event, on the grounds that the banner violated a school policy against the display of material advertising or promoting the use of illegal drugs.

Disruptive to School Activities

The school district judged that Spanierman’s behavior on his MySpace page was “likely to disrupt school activities.” It is on this point that the court drilled down to Spanierman’s contacts with his students. Excerpts of a number of exchanges with students were included in the opinion. And while to some these exchanges may seem innocuous, the court concluded as follows:

In the court’s view, it was not unreasonable for the Defendants to find that the Plaintiff’s conduct on MySpace was disruptive to school activities. The above examples of the online exchanges the Plaintiff had with students show a potentially unprofessional rapport with students, and the court can see how a school’s administration would disapprove of, and find disruptive, a teacher’s discussion with a student about “getting any” (presumably sex), or a threat made to a student (albeit a facetious one) about detention.

Moreover, there is evidence of complaints about the Plaintiff’s MySpace activities. For example, in her affidavit, Ford states that Emmett O’Brien students informed her of the Plaintiff’s MySpace conduct, which made some of them “uncomfortable.”…It is reasonable for the Defendants to expect the Plaintiff, a teacher with supervisory authority over students, to maintain a professional, respectful association with those students. This does not mean that the Plaintiff could not be friendly or humorous; however, upon review of the record, it appears that the Plaintiff would communicate with students as if he were their peer, not their teacher. Such conduct could very well disrupt the learning atmosphere of a school, which sufficiently outweighs the value of Plaintiff’s MySpace speech.

Nothing New?

It’s possible to view the Spanierman case as a cautionary tale on using new forms of communication in the educational environment. Spanierman said he intended to use his MySpace page to better relate to his students; indeed the case demonstrates that such a page can facilitate easy communication between teachers and students. But it is that easy familiarity that, in the view of the school district, drew Spanierman over the line between acceptable discourse and inappropriate communications. The severity of the punishment may also reflect an institutional discomfort with a new means of student-teacher communication that is outside the channels customarily controlled by the school district.

And, of course, the Spanierman case could also be viewed as a simple case of inappropriate communications with students, regardless of the medium involved. Although reasonable minds may differ on whether Spanierman’s communications warranted the discipline he received, the court ruled that, under the circumstances, it was the school district’s call to make.

It’s Not the First, and It Won’t Be the Last

This is not the first case in which a teacher, or an aspiring teacher, was discharged or disciplined for conduct involving a MySpace page. In another recent case, the so-called “drunken pirate” case, a teacher in training was denied a teaching degree just prior to her graduation when officials at her teaching school found a photo on her MySpace page showing her in a pirate hat, drinking alcohol. In Snyder v. Millersville University, filed in federal court in Pennsylvania, there was apparently no contact with students, and it is disputed whether any students at the school ever saw the photo or the MySpace page. The school district also contended that Snyder’s conduct as a student teacher was unprofessional in ways unrelated to her MySpace page.

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[NOTE: The following information is an UPDATE on June 24, 2009, reflecting the decision in the case.]

Following a trial, the federal court judge came to a conclusion similar to that in Spanierman. The court rejected Snyder’s challenge to the denial of her teaching degree because she failed to complete the required curriculum. The court also concluded that her First Amendment claim should be evaluated under the standards applicable to teachers, not to students, and thus she would be protected by the First Amendment only if the material on her MySpace page involved matters of “public concern.” Because Snyder admitted herself that the contents of her MySpace page were personal in nature, the court rejected her claim that her free speech rights were violated by discipline resulting from the contents of the MySpace page.

The Bottom Line

Both the Spanierman and Snyder cases are a subset of a larger category of disputes that involve posting in online forums, blogs and social networking sites. Regardless of the rights implicated, these cases remind us to be mindful of the ramifications that may flow from online personal expression that is readily accessible to students, co-workers, and employers.

Jeffrey D. Neuburger is a partner in the New York office of Proskauer Rose LLP, and co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group. His practice focuses on technology and media-related business transactions and counseling of clients in the utilization of new media. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching E-Commerce Law and the co-author of two books, “Doing Business on the Internet” and “Emerging Technologies and the Law.” He also co-writes the New Media & Technology Law Blog.

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