Teacher Trouble

Many of the examples in my Facebook article involve students who misunderstood the privacy implications of social networks. They put information about themselves on Facebook and are then startled when administrators and employers come across it. Two recent cases about high-school English teachers illustrate that teachers also make the same kind of mistakes.

In Snyder v. Millersville University, No. 07-1660 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 3, 2008), the plaintiff, Stacey Snyder, was a student and a teacher, or, more precisely, a student teacher. She attended Millersville University and had a teaching placement at Conestoga Valley High school. Her trouble began when one of her students recognized a friend from a photo on her MySpace page:

Plaintiff testified that she confronted the student, informing her that it was “unacceptable to talk to [her] teacher’s friends and relatives outside of school basis.” Plaintiff testified it was “inappropriate” for her student to look at a teacher’s MySpace account because “there’s a boundary line and there’s personal information on there that [the student] should know not to look at as a student.” Plaintiff explained that although the student could properly have looked at the webpage of a personal acquaintance, it was improper to look at Plaintiff’s webpage because Plaintiff was “a person of a higher standard.”

What a beautiful example of how people assume that privacy norms protect to their online conduct. Tilt your head a bit to one side and Snyder’s intervention might even seem like a reasonable attempt to educate the student about the value of privacy. Dan Solove would approve. But would he approve of what Snyder did next? She posted a note on her MySpace page, saying:

First, Bree said that one of my students was on here looking at my page, which is fine. I have nothing to hide. I am over 21, and I don’t say anything that will hurt me (in the long run). Plus, I don’t think that they would stoop that low as to mess with my future. So, bring on the love! I figure a couple of students will actually send me a message when I am no longer their official teacher. They keep asking me why I won’t apply there. Do you think it would hurt me to tell them the real reason (or who the problem was)?

There was also a photo of Snyder in a pirate hat—hence the Smoking Gun coverage of the “Drunken Pirate” case—but it was the “or who the problem was” line that cost her her placement. Other teachers reading the post had no trouble figuring out that Snyder was talking about Nicole Reinking, the teacher she was being supervised by. The school excluded Snyder, and as a direct consequence, she couldn’t complete her degree requirements. Instead of the B.S. in Education she’d been working towards, Millersville gave her a B.A. in English.

The case isn’t legally very interesting. Snyder’s problem was that she didn’t sue Conestoga Valley High School, and pretty much couldn’t. They removed her for speech on a matter of private concern that affected the school’s educational mission. End of story. Instead, she sued Millersville University, on the theory that she was a student, and students have a First Amendment right to criticize their teachers. The court both dismissed that theory—holding that she was essentially a public employee for purposes of the placement—and pointed out that even if she was right, Millersville had no authority under state law to award her a B.S. in Education unless she’d completed a student-teaching placement.

Meanwhile, in Spanierman v. Hughes, 576 F. Supp. 2d 292 (D. Conn. Sept. 16, 2008), Jeffrey Spanierman taught at Emmett O’Brien High School in Ansonia. He had multiple MySpace profiles, including one by the name of “Mr. Spiderman.” The school discovered the profile and warned him that it was inappropriately chummy with students. He took it down, recreated it under the name “Apollo68” and reposted essentially the same content. After students complained about it again to the school, the school put him on administrative leave and then refused to renew his contract.

The case reads like a standard walk through public-employment law: there are procedural and substantive due process, equal protection, and first amendment retaliation claims, all of which fail. Once again, the court finds that his speech was almost entirely on matters of private concern. Here’s an example:

Byczko [a student]: “yo, hows it going sir? i figured i would leave a comment because i’m bored :)”

the Plaintiff: “Things are going well for me. Sorry that you are bored. I’ll see you tomorrow. If you ever call me sir again, you will be serving a detention sooooo long that your great grandchildren will have to finish it out. LOL”

Byczko: “hey, i think thats a threat, u and me might have to fight!!! SIR!!! lol, see ya tomorrow!”

the Plaintiff: “I would never threaten you. It’s a straight out promise. I’ll give you a choice you can serve detention until you’ve copied every page of every book in my room or you can stay from tomorrow until 11-22-3088”

And here’s another:

the Plaintiff: “Repko and Ashley sittin in a tree. K I S S I N G. 1st comes love then comes marriage. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LOL”

repko: “dont be jealous cuase you cant get any lol :)”

the Plaintiff: “What makes you think I want any? I’m not jealous. I just like to have fun and goof on you guys. If you don’t like it. Kiss my brass! LMAO”

The court has no trouble concluding that the school acted reasonably when it decided that Spanierman was being disruptive towards the school’s educational mission. I’m sometimes troubled by the discretion schools have in making these decisions, but not here. Spanierman was no John Keating.

It’s interesting that the complaints here came from other students. I see their concerns as being in the same family as the privacy issues I’m writing about in the article. There’s a sense in which Spanierman’s creepy cameraderie is the same kind of boundary-violation as unwanted surveillance. Even if some students liked having a teacher they could relate to digitally, it’s easy to see how others could be weirded out by having a teacher in Their Space on such terms.

Hi. I like the way you write. Will you post some more articles?