ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Social networking can blur lines between private and public, work and personal, friend and stranger. And it has presented a particular challenge for teachers. Some educators have managed to rile up students and parents by posting comments or photos online. In some cases, teachers have been fired for statements they've made on Facebook.
And that is raising free speech issues, as we hear from Nancy Solomon of New Jersey News Service.
NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: In October, a Union, New Jersey high school teacher posted comments on her Facebook page that quickly turned into a flaming war of words with parents and local residents. She began by commenting that a gay history exhibit at the school should be removed, then urged her friends to pray, and called homosexuality a perverted sin.
The school district began an investigation at the request of parents, and dueling demonstrations were held at the local school board meeting between gays rights activists and supporters of the teacher.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She has the right to oppose as a private citizen, but not as a teacher.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Vicky has a right. Vicky has a right to free speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING CROWD)
SOLOMON: The teacher has been suspended while the investigation continues.
In Patterson, New Jersey, a first grade teacher in a largely black and Latino school may lose her job after commenting on Facebook that she feels like a warden for future criminals.
John Palfrey, of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says there have always been teachers who say dumb things, but now social media amplifies those comments.
JOHN PALFREY: The nature of a conversation is changing in a digital age and the consequences of saying something that's dumb are much greater. People can get fired for something that otherwise would have been completely and quickly forgotten.
SOLOMON: The New Jersey Teachers Union is providing legal help in both cases. Spokesman Steve Wollmer says the union suggests a variety of policies that should be followed when teachers use social media.
STEVE WOLLMER: Don't ever friend or follow your students on Facebook or Twitter. Never post during work hours or using work material and certainly never post anything about your job online, especially about students. And I think that's where some of these teachers have found themselves in difficult situations.
SOLOMON: Teachers are running into problems with social media all across the country. And, often, the organization that jumps to their defense, no matter how offensive the comments might be, is the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ed Barocas, legal director of the ACLU in New Jersey, says teachers have a right to free speech and must be protected from what is called the Heckler's Veto, someone taking issue with their opinion.
ED BAROCAS: You have the right to speak your mind. You have the right to be offensive, as long as it does not create that inability to do your job at the school.
SOLOMON: Barocas says teachers do run a greater risk saying something that can affect their job performance. Just this week, a Bronx high school principal has made tabloid news because students passed around a Facebook photo that shows her being doused in chocolate sauce by a shirtless man.
In the Patterson case, a judge ruled that teacher Jennifer O'Brien can be fired for calling her students future criminals on Facebook because parents insisted their children be removed from her classroom. Her lawyer, Nancy Oxfeld, argues the posting was just an insignificant blunder said in frustration after a bad day.
NANCY OXFELD: She never, ever thought her students were all future criminals and people leaped to a conclusion that Ms. O'Brien did believe what she said when she didn't.
SOLOMON: Oxfeld, who will make the case to the state education commissioner, says the teacher has an unblemished job performance record.
But credibility and trust matter, especially to parents. Jose Iturralde is the father of a student at Union High School and feels the long rant against homosexuality that teacher Viki Knox posted on Facebook undermines her ability to teach.
JOSE ITURRALDE: How you say and how you go about it is what counts, especially when you're dealing with kids. You're their role model. Putting things like that or saying things like that is a bit inappropriate.
SOLOMON: The teachers' postings come at a moment when schools are struggling with cyber-bullying and anti-gay bullying. If Knox is to keep her job, she'll have to convince officials that speaking her mind about homosexuality did not create a negative atmosphere at school that conflicts with its mission.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.