Oxford Spies on Students through Facebook

By July 18, 2007

The United Kingdom appears to be rapidly turning into a place where Big Brother is not just a character in a book, or a reality TV show, but a reality for everyone. Britain is well-known for its abundance of closed-circuit TV cameras that record everyone walking down the streets, all the time—and sometimes, the cameras even harangue you to stop doing what you’re doing.

Yet the Argus-like eye of Britain is not confined to the increasingly ubiquitous security cameras—now, at least for Oxford University, Facebook.com is part of the equation. The AP reports that Oxford administrators are actively searching through Facebook profiles to find photographic examples of “disorderly conduct” and, even more creepily, “anti-social behavior contrary to University regulations,” in order to punish students. And at Oxford, the university fines students between $80 and $200 for each offense, making this a particularly lucrative application of the surveillance society.

FIRE doesn’t take cases in any other country but the United States, for many reasons including the fact that the guarantees of free speech are different—and generally quite a bit weaker—in virtually every other country in the world, including Britain and Canada. Further, FIRE could never take on a whole world full of censorship. But we would be remiss not to be concerned about this development out of Oxford, one of the world’s most ancient and respected universities. We have already seen that administrators in the United States are willing to punish students for what they find on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites—just ask Matt Walston of the University of Central Florida, or Justin Park at Johns Hopkins, or Stacy Snyder at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, for example. I shudder to think what U.S. administrators (or British ones, for that matter) could make out of an effort to punish students for “anti-social behavior contrary to University regulations” found on Facebook. After all, here’s what constitutes an offense at Oxford:

Hill said the e-mail stated that three of her photos provided evidence she had engaged in “disorderly” conduct.

“They gave me links to three photos on Facebook where I’ve got shaving foam all over me as examples of my disorderly conduct,” she said. “I think it’s an appalling thing to do.”

Apparently, being covered with shaving cream is some sort of rules violation at Oxford. Odd, that. But not more odd than many of the offenses cited in FIRE cases. Seeing this story, many universities in the U.S. may start thinking, “If it’s OK for Oxford, why not for us?” This is an ominous development for liberty on campus.

As usual, FIRE advises students to watch what they are putting on their Facebook accounts. If you are engaging in underage drinking and posting photos of it, don’t be surprised if you find those photos used against you as evidence that you were breaking school rules. At the same time, Facebook and sites like it are creating a real moral hazard for administrators. Students regularly say and do things of which administrators don’t approve, and the vast majority of these things are perfectly within the law and the rules. The urge to use Facebook to punish student expression may be intense, but unless it is resisted, student liberties are likely to be trampled even more thoroughly than they already are on campus. And for those who do get in trouble for expressive activities on Facebook, FIRE stands ready to help.

Schools: Johns Hopkins University Millersville University of Pennsylvania University of Central Florida