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Australian Plan to Rate Social Media Posts Offends First Amendment Principles

By July 18, 2014

The United States is unique among nations for its liberal approach to free expression—and we’re fortunate to have this approach written into our law through the First Amendment. However, people from other countries often do not share the American ethos of free speech. So the results of a recent study on attitudes towards social media among members of university communities in Australia and New Zealand were lamentable but not surprising.

As Carl Straumsheim reports in Inside Higher Ed, students and faculty in these two countries supported the idea that university administrators should rate social media posts brought to their attention on a 1–4 scale and warn or sanction a student for posting something that falls under category 3 or 4. (Survey respondents also agreed, however, that schools should not actively monitor social media sites for inappropriate or offensive comments.)

The survey offered a range of hypothetical posts and asked survey respondents to rate them. What speech would warrant counseling or warning by a university administrator? Anything from “I wish he’d get to the point. He just talks and talks and I can’t even

understand him half the time. He needs to learn f***ing English” (low on the counseling scale) to “I wish Gina would die!! aaaargh! I think I might kill her tomorrow! Stick a knife rihht [sic] in her! LOL!” (high on the warning scale). If we can assume that people issuing true threats don’t usually punctuate them with “aaaargh!” and “LOL!,” this is is the kind of tasteless speech that the First Amendment protects.

The lead researcher, Professor John Rowe, stated that because social media is so ubiquitous, the results of his survey “apply to Western institutions in general.” This may be true in Europe, where people frequently tolerate a great deal of censorship. For instance, according to Jay Arthur writing at The Huffington Post, the British government has prevailed upon Internet service providers in the UK to block information about drug legalization using “porn filters” in order to protect the “innocence of children.” But I’d like to think most Americans, including college students, would hesitate before advocating the official, legal punishment of someone whose “threat” contained “LOL!”

Professor Rowe, an Australian, might be excused for not taking American values of free speech or the legal requirements of the First Amendment into account. The same cannot be said of American college administrators. Indeed, the current president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration (ASCA), Matthew Gregory, told Straumsheim that “[f]ree speech is a fine line” and “[h]aving a rubric with a range of options universities need to identify those level three-level four posts would be a sound action.”

No, it wouldn’t. The First Amendment protects a wide range of thought, debate, insight, and brilliance—as well as quackery, foolishness, maliciousness, and everything in between. Having a rubric in which college administrators would categorize social media posts, according to undefined criteria, into those that should be ignored, possibly ignored, acted upon by counseling, or sanctioned would inevitably be abused. Just ask Matt Werenczak, who was expelled from the Syracuse University School of Education for a Facebook post—and not readmitted until FIRE intervened. Werenczak is only one of the many examples of students who have been subject to censorship of, or punishment for, their social media communications that can be found in FIRE’s case archives.

On July 1, FIRE launched the Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, an initiative that will drive home, once and for all, the Supreme Court’s declaration that “state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.” FIRE will keep working with students to file lawsuits challenging speech codes until the only rational response to a survey asking whether universities should punish students for social media posts is: “Why would you do something that laughably unconstitutional?”

Schools: Syracuse University Cases: Syracuse University: Education Student Expelled over Facebook Comments