Connecticut Teacher Fired Over Myspace Page

Another contentious Myspace profile, another legal debacle. The rundown, courtesy of Mediashift:

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."

Spanierman contested the grounds for his dismissal, alleging that the school violated rights guaranteed him by the First and 14th Amendments, but the U.S. District Court of Connecticut rejected both claims. The legalese protecting tenured and non-tenured Connecticut public school teachers is beyond my expertise, so I'll avoid weighing in on whether or not Spanierman's contract was violated. And due to the appalling precedent established by the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, it's tough to argue that Spanierman's First Amendment rights were violated.

But there's a better way to go about contesting his firing—by arguing that Myspace and other social networking technologies are an integral component of education reform. After all, a million Mark Bauerlein books (excellent reason.tv interview here) aren't going to keep students away from the Internet, so why not turn Myspace, Facebook, and other online applications into teaching tools?

At Inside Higher Ed, Andy Guess reported on a Facebook application that communicates information from Blackboard (an online interactive syllabus), in effect, reaching "students even when they’re trying to avoid studying." And in an op-ed that came out a few months prior to Guess' piece, professor Shari Dinkins, a self-professed ole' fogie, conceded that "when used appropriately and in moderation, technology can help us teach. And it can help our “wired” students learn."

And while most of the reported successes of social networking mingling with curricula are from the post-secondary level, I know a number of high school teachers who have used instant messaging to help their students. In one of these cases, a math teacher signs onto his AOL account right after dinner and answers questions pertaining to the evening's homework until around 9 p.m., which allows more time the next day for teaching new material and addressing lingering concerns from the previous night's assignment.

Granted, Myspace—with its naked bum pics, renegade spammers, and risque ads—is probably not the best means for reaching students outside the classroom, but instead of firing Spanielman, his bosses should have done more to measure the effects of his online interaction with students, and, had they found them effective, established age-appropriate guidelines for how to use those tools.

Katherine Mangu-Ward on the University of Phoenix here. Excellent reason.tv video on universal preschool here. Daniel H. Pink on individualized education here. And of course, the other big Myspace case.

[Hat tip to Simon Owens.]

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  • Naga Sadow||

    But Riggs . . . its for the children.

  • Elemenope||

    Granted, Myspace-with its naked bum pics, renegade spammers, and risque ads-is probably not the best means for reaching students outside the classroom, but instead of firing Spanielman, his bosses should have done more to measure the effects of his online interaction with students, and, had they found them effective, established age-appropriate guidelines for how to use those tools.

    That would have been smarter. Of course, there is no legitimate way to make people behave smarter.

    Due to the appalling precedent established by the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, however, it's tough to argue that Spanierman's First Amendment rights were violated.

    I find it tough to argue how the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case ever rested side-by-side in the same body of law as the First Amendment. That case took the two things that piss me off the most (i.e. children aren't people with rights, and DRUGS!!! Argh!) and put them together in the stupidest way possible.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Elemenope,

    Careful. Mentioning drugs and children in the post is a sure way to attract federal notice.

  • ||

    Being unable to view Mr. Spanierman's MySpace page, I'm unable to determine whether his getting canned was appropriate.

    From the MediaShift link

    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.


    QFT.

  • Guy Montag||

    Jeffrey Spanierman

    Damn! I was hoping this was another of the hottie chick teachers in Florida posting her nekkid pix or something.

    Still keeping my fake Lerner's Permit (if you spell it wrong it is not counterfeiting, right?) in the hopes of meeting Deborah LeFave on my next trip to Central Florida . . .

  • ||

    Careful. Mentioning drugs and children in the post is a sure way to attract federal notice.

    Drug, chidren and SEX! works even better.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Buddy Holly,

    Disturbing but funny.

  • Guy Montag||

    BH,

    I thought for sure your post would pull up better ads, but alas, I was mistaken.

  • ||

    Welch doesn't get enough play on his book already? Now you're linking other authors to his book?

  • ||

    There's an entire body of First Amendment case law specific to public employees. Basically, unless he was speaking on a matter of "public concern" on his MySpace page, the First Amendment wouldn't protect Spanierman from being fired. In its capacity as an employer, the government can restrict its employees' speech in ways that it can't do to the general public.

    The tenure stuff is actually pretty simple in this case. Spanierman claimed that he wasn't given due process in the method by which he was fired. This is a common claim for fired public employees and is governed by yet another large body of federal case law dating back decades. In short, teachers who don't have tenure are employed "at will" (like most folks) and can be fired without just cause and without being entitled to a hearing.

    I deal with these issues regularly (won't go into the specifics). The Myspace angle is interesting, but the guy didn't have much of a case.

  • ||

    Actually, I should amend my comment above--Spanierman claimed that school district lacked "just cause" to fire him, not that it violated any procedural protections. As I explained above, his case was a loser either way.

  • cunnivore||

    This has zilch to do with the Bong Hits case. Students are forced to attend school, and thus the actions taken against them by the school are government coercion. So the 1st amendment may apply.

    This guy was not forced to work for a pubic school. His relationship with the school is not a coercive one. The 1st amendment doesn't apply -- just as it wouldn't if he worked for a private school.

    Otherwise, you're saying that sucking money from the pubic teat entitles you to MORE rights.

  • ||

    cunnivore,

    Actually, Bong Hits v Jesus (that's what we're calling it now) went even beyond students' rights to speech in school. The student in question was not in school at the time, nor had he been in school that day. The principle saw him at a public event with the sign and physically took it from him. Disciplining him after the fact may or may not have been legal, but taking the sign was criminal.

    As for this case, it appears to be a contract law issue. If, indeed, he was an at-will employee, it seems the state was within its rights to fire him. It was probably an overreaction, but it doesn't appear his rights were violated.

  • JLE||

    It makes sense if he's teaching minors. Kids have to be 18 to even see a rated R movie, and there's no reason for them to be dealing with naked pictures when trying to get help with homework.

    I teach online, and I show all my students my MySpace page as well as my blog so they know who I am. However, they are all adults, most older than me, and there isn't any nudity involved.

    The guy should have built a website for the purpose if he was that intent on extra-curricular curriculum. Schools provide the hosting.

  • ||

    Question:

    If this guy had maintained two separate pages, one strictly related to classroom matters, and another dedicated to showcasing his idiocy and/or multitude of peversions, would it have made a difference?

  • ||

    perversions, preversions, as you please

  • Abdul||

    instead of firing Spanielman, his bosses should have done more to measure the effects of his online interaction with students, and, had they found them effective, established age-appropriate guidelines for how to use those tools.

    Apparently, when a colleage told Spanielman that the site was questionable, Spanileman just put up a different site with similar questionable content. Doesn't seem like Spanileman was responding to reasonable persuasion on the issue.

  • come again?||

    sucking money from the pubic teat

  • rhywun||

    I want to know more about the "pictures of naked men with 'inappropriate comments' underneath them", and how they supposedly relate to the "educational" purpose of the site.

  • ||

    As for this case, it appears to be a contract law issue. If, indeed, he was an at-will employee, it seems the state was within its rights to fire him. It was probably an overreaction, but it doesn't appear his rights were violated.

    That's true, but even as an at-will employee, it's possible the school district could not have legally fired him over his Myspace page had the page qualified as constitutionally protected speech under the Connick/Pickering test. It didn't even meet the initial "public concern" part of that test, however, so you're right in the end. But the "at will" test has nothing to do with First Amendment protection. The Due Process angle is a separate legal analysis.

    Question:

    If this guy had maintained two separate pages, one strictly related to classroom matters, and another dedicated to showcasing his idiocy and/or multitude of peversions, would it have made a difference?


    No. In fact, Spanierman likely would have received no First Amendment protection at all for the page devoted to classroom matters, since that page would have arguably fallen within the scope of his duties as a teacher. This is based on a recent Supreme Court decision that greatly restricted the scope of First Amendment lawsuits by fired public employees.

    The "perversion" page also probably wouldn't have been protected by the First Amendment under Connick/Pickering, since courts would be unlikely to find that Spanierman's perversions were a matter of "public concern."

    In these types of cases, you're mostly looking for whistleblowing activity, off-duty political activity, or that type of thing. It has to be something that the general public would have such an important interest in knowing, that it overrides the government's interests as an employer.

  • ||

    If the results here sound harsh, think of it this way: the federal courts have been concerned for years with public employees trying to turn run-of-the-mill employment disputes into constitutional cases.

    In recent years, courts have cut back on public employees' ability to bring these cases. They still have the same protections that private employees have, however, as well as certain constitutional protections that private employees don't have--especially related to whistleblowing or political activity.

  • ||

    Buddy Holly and ChrisO:

    It doesn't matter how many MySpace pages he had or what he put on them, they still would have been filled with pictures of semi-naked young people. MySpace has advertising contracts with, what seems like exclusively, "hot singles" advertisers. There is no option to have a different class of advertisement on a MySpace page ... that's all they have, and no mechanism for deviations.

    (As a web programmer I have attempted to instruct them in how exceedingly simple it would be to include such a function, but they are wholly uninterested.)

    So even if all the teacher included were Bible tracts, his MySpace pages would STILL have been patently offensive to anyone who doesn't enjoy looking at slutty teens. That's how MySpace is for everyone. Facebook would have been a better choice.

  • ||

    (As a web programmer I have attempted to instruct them in how exceedingly simple it would be to include such a function, but they are wholly uninterested.)

    As an actual web programmer, you're clearly a foreign species to the fine folks at Myspace. I hate that fucking POS site with a passion, and yet I use it as my main page for my music. Do they have actual programmers there? I can't detect any sign of rational coding.

  • ||

    I am still spinning from the fact that a union teacher at a public school got fired at all.

  • ||

    I was writing a long comment about this news item earlier, but I just deleted it all.

    there's no reason for them to be dealing with naked pictures when trying to get help with homework.




    This sums up my opinion. There is absolutely no reason why his students should have to go onto Myspace for help with their homework. It is not a safe assumption that all kids have Myspace pages; there are some non-douchebags left on the planet, after all. It's called email. It's a useful and versatile tool. I had several instructors in college who would answer questions via simple emailing lists, or via correspondences with individual students through email, depending on whether the question was pertinent to the whole class or if a specific student had a specific question. Yes, it's really that simple. It's actually a whole hell of a lot more simple than attempting to read someone's Myspace page...that website is such an illegible pile of clutter. Not that anyone here isn't surprised, but I would not be willing to give this teacher the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions.

  • ||

    Not only that, but supposing the teacher were to delete his account and make a new one, I'm pretty sure that all of his previous correspondences would be deleted from his students' Myspace inboxes. So much for reference sources in the case his students need to refer to his answers at a later point! So inefficient.

  • ||

    I dunno, Smacky. "Social Networking" sites are basically email with pictures. And I wasn't able to view the guys page, but I suspect he got fired for being too stupid to deny spam comments. Maybe that's a good thing.

  • ||

    I dunno, Smacky. "Social Networking" sites are basically email with pictures.


    Lamar,

    Or maybe he could just send picture attachments as needed via regular email. Social networking sites are much more than "basically email with pictures". There is nothing basic about social networking sites. Social networking sites are a Pandora's box of stupidity.

  • ||

    "There is nothing basic about social networking sites. Social networking sites are a Pandora's box of stupidity."

    OK. I guess I'm too old. I look at the things, and I see a bunch of shit, some pictures, more shit, and an email function. Sometimes annoying music plays. And occasionally it reminds me of a birthday I forgot.

  • ||

    So what happens when the current generation of kids graduate and become teachers? Must they delete their myspace and facebook pages?

  • ||

    OK. I guess I'm too old. I look at the things, and I see a bunch of shit, some pictures, more shit, and an email function. Sometimes annoying music plays. And occasionally it reminds me of a birthday I forgot.


    That's what I'm saying...they're craptastic. They're so junked up with applications and sparkly graphics and junk...I just don't see how they could possibly make learning easier. I mean if his students can't use basic email without a hip-hop soundtrack and flash animation, maybe it's time to up the Ritalin dosage.

  • ||

    Lamar,

    You're not too old...I'm just a crotchety old biddy. Now will everyone please kindly get off my lawn before I turn the sprinklers on.

  • Paul||

    Without commenting on the merits of his case, or the schools case, I will comment on Spanierman's judgement:

    Not good.

    I hesitate to make a direct comparison to creating a MySpace area designed "to learn more about the students so he could relate to them better, and to conduct casual, non-school related discussions" to having them over to the house for 'study sessions' after school hours, but both will have their obvious problems.

    While doing so doesn't mean you're guilty of anything illegal, it creates an arena for scrutiny over appropriate boundaries.

    When you're a teacher of young children, there are boundaries-- professional boundaries. I've always been very skeptical of the teacher that's seen as 'super-cool' by his fresh-faced students and engages in "casual, non-school related" activities" with them.

    The reason these boundaries should be observed is to protect the teacher as much as the students. If I'm not inviting Lupita, Shannon, Timmy and Lola over to my house in the evenings for "study sessions", then there's no possible way for those sessions to be misconstrued (either by design or by accident) as something nefarious.

  • ||

    a-squared's Anti-Malware software, without any training from me, blocked myspace.com from loading in Firefox (it's the first time I've tried to visit the site in a couple of years). I trust a-squared in this, since my recollection of Myspace is that it is a vile, low-common-denominator, Mos-Eisley sort of joint. Perhaps the teacher is guilty only of poor taste.

  • Kolohe||

    but instead of firing Spanielman, his bosses should have done more to measure the effects of his online interaction with students,

    I haven't read through all the comments above, but just reading the mediashift excerpt in the post, I'm entirely on the side of the Conn School Board.

    Spanielman was warned. He did his own thing anyway. You disobey legimitate (read: legal, moral & ethical) instructions from your employer sayonara.

    The compromise, if Spanielman was serious, was to use some other tool beside myspace to accomplish the goals of "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."

    Blogger would have worked perfectly well. Any sort of home built website would have also. Heck he could have used the H&R comment boards right here.

    But the state has a legimitate interest in any content that is present concomitant with what an employee (esp a school employee) is presenting in an *official* capacity. I don't use myspace, so I don't know how custimizable it is. But if it will always display content that is inappropriate (or even questionable) to minors, it should not be used. Esp when there are (free) customizable alternatives available.

  • Kolohe||

    and what Paul said just above.

  • Mad Max||

    Some dialogue between the teacher/plaintiff and a student, from the district court's opinion:

    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 [a student]: "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"

  • Jennifer||

    I can definitely see why a MySpace page would be better than e-mail for homework help, however. When I was teaching I gave my e-mail address to my honors students in case they needed help with their summer homework (which was required by the curriculum, NOT by me), and considering how many times I got basically the same question from different students, it would've been much easier for me if all such communications could've been on a single Web page that everyone could see.

  • MJ||

    Spanierman was deliberately using his MySpace page to communicate with his students. He had content inappropriate for minors on it and was asked to remove it by co-workers. What exactly is the problem with what happened to him? If he was only using the MySpace page for private matters, there might be some argument, but that apparently was not the case and therefore he was behaving unprofessionally.

    The issue is not that Spanierman was using technology to communicate, it was that he was inappropriately mixing his personal interests with his professional life.

  • ||

    The "Mark Bauerlein books" link doesn't seem to be working as intended. (Matt Welch will use any and every opportunity to flog his book. :) )

  • vault_dog4||

    As a young, tech savvy government teacher, I agree completely with Paul's statement above.

    You simply do not put yourself in a position of questionable behavior outside of education. I have a fairly functional website that the school district provides and I email much of what I see on blogs (especially Hit and Run, but definitely not Reason Foundation (they suck)). And it works better than MySpace.

    This teacher should have used some common sense. And with today's litigation happy parents (my school has been involved in 2 supreme court cases and the city (population 4,000) involved in 2 more), you have to cover your a$$. Even if it comes at the expense of the students' educations. Sorry, but true.

  • ||

    "As a young, tech savvy government teacher, I agree completely with Paul's statement above."

    I do too. That's why the actual page matters. Being on Myspace, he starts off with one strike against him. In order to be above board, he can only have current students as friends, only have pictures of his classroom, not have any comments at all, save every email he ever got, and he would have to discipline any students who email him or attempt to post anything that wouldn't fly in class. Even then its a bit of a risk.

  • ||

    Having served on a school board for several years, it seems to me that Spanierman was not yet a tenured teacher. Thus, it was easy for the school just to refuse to renew his contract for the following school year. As was apparently the case. Also given the apparent facts here it seems well within the rights of the school not to continue employing this teacher. There are numerous applications that can be used specifically for this type of teacher-student interaction (Blackboard comes to mind) without the baggage that MySpace carries. I for one would not have had any problem getting rid of a teacher who behaved in this manner. There is a point where one needs to grow up and stop being "the cool guy" and become a competent professional.

  • ||

    I'm afraid to say that you are all horribly wrong about the outcome of the bong hits for Jesus case.

    $ judges said it was protected speech, 4 said there was no protected speech, and one said that all speech is protected but that disruptive behavior is not, and the student admitted that his sign was meant to disrupt (not being pro drug was a big part of his case).

    Apparently in case law the deciding vote counts, so students get protected speech for pro drug messages.

  • ||

    I've always been very skeptical of the teacher that's seen as 'super-cool' by his fresh-faced students and engages in "casual, non-school related" activities" with them.


    Me, too. Besides, all the best teachers were the ones who rebuffed our efforts to try and be cool with them, and who rather instead made fun of us for being twerps. It just made us look up to them more. I like to think I would have been suspicious of any teacher who was actively trying to impress me and mimic my peer group. Trying to interact with teen students on Myspace is comparatively as creepy as hanging out behind the library after school, smoking pot with them. Heck, that would probably still be less creepy than hanging out on Myspace, given the cyber-baggage that Myspace has.


    I can definitely see why a MySpace page would be better than e-mail for homework help, however. When I was teaching I gave my e-mail address to my honors students in case they needed help with their summer homework (which was required by the curriculum, NOT by me), and considering how many times I got basically the same question from different students, it would've been much easier for me if all such communications could've been on a single Web page that everyone could see.


    Like someone else said, there are many other options besides Myspace that don't have the creeptastic connotations, like Blackboard or even Blogger. Or, as was previously suggested, a simple mass emailing list would be sufficient. If he simply instructed students to email the list, then everyone would receive the question and everyone would receive the follow-up replies, because that's how email lists work.

  • ||

    I just read the full court opinion from the link that Mad Max posted. I think the defendants probably just wanted to fire him for being dumb, but didn't want to be so mean and blunt about it, so instead they came up with all of these complicated excuses. A little more assertiveness might have saved them a lot of grief. :)

  • دردشة يمنية||

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