I've been following Randy Turner's blog every since the devastating tornado that ripped through his hometown of Joplin, MO. Randy is a journalist, a communication arts teacher and a sensitive fellow who seems to be a strong and persistent voice of reason for his community. Lately, his blog has been quoted on MSNBC in regard to the issue of a new law in MO that is to take effect (if you can call it that) in the fall, the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act.
Now you'd think from the title of the law, it would be a good thing: Protecting kids, and all that. Unfortunately what Amy Hestir has on her mind is the fearful spectre of rampant abuse of students by their teachers via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Hester seems to bear particular animus against Facebook. The law, which is vague and unenforceable at best unless of course the state starts spying on its citizen's private communications (not unthinkable), calls it a crime for a teacher to communicate via a social networking site with a student, current or former.
Think about it. Randy Turner has.
After the tornado in Joplin, Randy was frantically trying to find his students to see if they were alright. Facebook and Twitter were his main means of doing so. Not all of them were OK, and after the deaths were counted and Joplin started the long task of putting itself back together again, social networking sites became one of the community's main means of sharing widespread grief and mourning, not to mention a forum for organizing and putting the town back together again.
As Randy points out, this new law assumes the potential guilt of all teachers and creates a negative atmosphere where none need exist. As I know from personal experience, teachers who want to have inappropriate relationships with students will do so, and they will do it in the flesh or virtual world as the opportunity presents itself. Without minimizing the power of digital communications, I think I can say that being molested or offered a joint in person is a more life-changing event than receiving a skeezy communication from Mr. BadTeacher via Facebook! So one might well ask, why not just write a law calling for severe punishment of teachers who have inappropriate relationships with students via any means? And, though it might seem obvious to you and me, what after all is "inappropriate" in the eyes of a person like Amy Hestir? Would giving private counsel to a young girl who's discovered she's pregnant and is afraid she is going to be beaten up by her Dad if she tells him be considered "inappropriate"? Would counseling the child of a Jehovah's witness that it's OK to be gay be considered "inappropriate"?
What we do know about Hestir is that she was sexually molested by a teacher when she was 12, 28 years ago. Before the internet even existed. What we can intuit is that Hestir, like many people who are victims of childhood abuse, has made crusading against those who remind her of her childhood abuser (who went unpunished) her main life's motivation. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But when we crusade, it is incumbent upon us to sort out whether what we are doing is wise or not, not just whether it satisfies a lifelong desire to avenge ourselves personally. Not to be mean or anything, but I think Amy Hestir might consider facing her personal demons privately with a therapist, and leave the rest of us and our social networking alone.
Amy Hestir's entire argument for creating a law specifically focused on the perceived "danger" of social networking sites rests upon the unspoken assumption that the freedom of social networking is in itself dangerous, with a capital D and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pederast! Hestir is a spokesperson for an emerging group of people who think that the Internet is a Fearsome Place where our children must not go freely, as it it were some sort of Black Forest where our Hansels and Gretels might get eaten by the Wicked Witch (who, naturally, has a page on Facebook). We can argue what "inappropriate" is until we are blue in the face and, by the way, we should. But we also must come to grips with the general scapegoating of social networking that is rising among those in power. Tipper Gore scapegoated popular music back in mid-80s in the same way, and caused a ruckus that left us with an insane system of coding that few can understand or appreciate. Scapegoating media always leads to censorship. And social ills of every sort have existed long before a silicon chip ever dreamed of becoming a Facebook page.
For some people, social networking is the Salem Witch whom they would like to burn at the stake. The internet is a fearsome place to them, but it extends the very freedoms of which all Americans claim to be so proud. Ironically, it is this very freedom of which so many are still so very afraid.