FIRE President Greg Lukianoff and Senior Program Officer Will Creeley co-authored the cover story of this week’s edition of The Phoenix in both Boston and Providence, discussing the ever-growing problem stemming from students’ expression on social networking websites like Facebook.com.
The article points out that even though policing student speech is not a new phenomenon on university campuses—just as students speaking “offensively” toward one another is nothing new—the popularity of Facebook makes it easier for school officials to access exchanges that used to take place in less public settings:
In light of this shameful tradition of controlling and limiting student speech on college campuses, we should not be surprised that social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook—which greatly increase the visibility of once-private student interaction—send university administrators into a blind panic. And if, in light of that, increased administrative online monitoring seems inevitable, it is all the more so given that fellow students survey these sites, too, and report their findings.
For a generation that has been keeping journals and posting photos of themselves online since they were in elementary school, it is simply too easy to play “gotcha!” with the online “paper trails” left by students, and too many administrators seem willing to respond with heavy hands.
It’s always possible that, after a protracted and probably nasty fight, campus administrators will realize that inter-student online communication is sometimes coded, sarcastic, and harsh—and thus incredibly easy to misinterpret—and that it is neither wise, nor even really possible, to police all students online. Thankfully, at this month’s Association for Student Judicial Affairs conference, one of the top conventions of campus disciplinary officials, some lecturers argued strongly against administrators hunting down student speech online. Less encouragingly, when at these same meetings people were asked how many check out their students’ online profiles, the overwhelming majority of hands went up.
We have seen several cases involving Facebook posts already, and unfortunately, we expect to see many more. Students should be aware that school officials are likely trawling these sites, looking for trouble. But officials should be aware that student speech that is simply “offensive” is often also constitutionally protected, and that FIRE stands ready to fight for students wrongfully censored.