At Seattle University, Students Subjected to Online Snooping

By June 3, 2008

The Seattle Times reported yesterday that the online activity of students at Seattle University is actively monitored by university administrators, who have gone so far as to warn students that online invitations for off-campus parties could be subject to discipline.

The Times‘ article documents several instances where party invitations posted by students on popular social networking site Facebook.com prompted Glen Butterworth, assistant to the university’s dean of students, to warn potential participants that their proposed parties would violate the school’s code of conductdespite the fact that the parties were advertised online and to be held off-campus. In one particularly ridiculous episode, Butterworth physically visited the off-campus location for a proposed private party hours before the event’s start specifically to warn students that by proceeding, they would risk punishment.

As if spying on students online wasn’t outrageous enough, Butterworth and Seattle University threatened students with punishment for engaging in clearly protected expressive activity. For example, the Times details that the school cracked down on a party advertised on Facebook as a satirical "douchebag party," wherein students were to dress like stereotypical fraternity or sorority members. (Female students were asked to wear pink sweatsuits, while males were planning to wear aviator sunglasses and flip-flops.) Once the school discovered the invitations on Facebook, however, Butterworth sent a stern e-mail to the four seniors planning the party:

"Be advised that your online advertising for the party of Sunday May 25th is potentially in violation of the Seattle University Code of Student Conduct," wrote Glen Butterworth, assistant to the dean of students, in an e-mail to the seniors. "You will be held responsible if you host an event with a theme of gender bias."

Leaving aside the obvious problems inherent in deeming the proposed party "an event with a theme of gender bias" (for starters, weren’t both sexes being parodied equally here?), the larger issues raised by administrative monitoring of student speech are even more worrisome. We’ve seen the results of this kind of policing before, and they aren’t pretty. Indeed, many FIRE supporters will remember the shocking case of Justin Park, the Johns Hopkins junior suspended for an "offensive" Halloween party invitation posted on Facebook.com.

While Seattle University is a private institution, and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, students have a right to expect certain common sense delineations between their private lives and their interactions with school officials. Greg and I argued this precise point in a Boston Phoenix article published last year examining the increasingly contentious relationship between online student speech and real-world university punishment. Our basic argument remains that while students must recognize that online speech is more public than they often realize, university administrators should likewise consider the deleterious effect of policing a student’s every statement for any possibility of imagined "offense." The gratuitous snooping practiced by overzealous administrators like Butterworth ends up leaving students justifiably resentful while simultaneously chilling speech, both on and off campus. Such a result benefits neither university nor student.