Proposed social media policy draws criticism from campus community

September 15, 2011

–Senior Reporter McKinzie Brocail contributed to this report–

A newly proposed social media policy from the Marketing and Communication department has some student organizations, faculty and staff questioning the policy’s potential restrictions on Constitutional rights and the way in which it was created.

The policy allows the university the right to remove any material from groups that might paint the university in a bad light. It immediately raised some concern among some members of the Faculty Senate.

Read the Offical SHSU Media Policy and Procedures.

Paul Loeffler, chair of the Faculty Affairs Subcommittee, said. "(The administration) cannot physically or financially, control all of the propaganda. I do know there are faculty and staff that feel that this attacks their First Amendment rights."

Loeffler and several other members of the university have First Amendment issues with sections of the policy that state:

"The University claims the right to remove comments and content from social media accounts if they:

-          Are inaccurate, defame, or otherwise impact the University’s reputation and integrity.

-          Include spam, repetitive/irrelevant posting, or other activities judged to fall into these categories.

-          The University claims the right to remove any material…with the right to expand this list…without reservation or obligation to defend the action."

The SHSU Social Media Policy and Procedures Manual applies to any group who uses the trademarked "SHSU" or "Sam Houston State University" as part of their profile.

The affected groups must join the Sam Houston Social Universe, created by the Marketing and Communications department. The policy does not affect personal social media pages.

Another faculty Senate member, who chose to remain unnamed, reflected Loeffler’s concerns and said one of the Senate’s several concerns is the policy’s "broad power" to edit social media content without justification.

"I understand the obviously inappropriate behavior they wish to control, and I don’t believe they have any malicious intent," they said, "but I worry about how other individuals could interpret and apply this broad power in the future. It would be easy to cross a line into censorship."

Although Loeffler said he had not yet totally read the manual in depth, his "initial impression is (the university is) overreaching, and that they are not going to be able to control all of the users."

Faculty Senators and other groups said the freedom of speech, and other First Amendment rights, are a predominant issue they have with the policy. Randall Kallinen, a Houston-based civil rights attorney, said because SHSU is a public or state school, they fall under the jurisdiction of the First Amendment.

"(The policy) appears to be unconstitutionally vague," Kallinen said. "What does it mean when they say ‘irrelevant’ posting?"

Kallinen said that no matter the university’s intentions, the policy is a contract, and whoever signs it must obey all of its laws.

"Whether the university is screening (the social media), or not, a rule is a rule," Kallinen said. "The idea is that it is so vague a person doesn’t know what they are doing is wrong."

Not just First Amendment rights are in jeopardy, according to Kallinen.

"It provides no due process, violating Fifth Amendment rights," he said. "The policy provides no process of how something is removed. It says they can remove anything without any sort of process to challenge the ruling."

Kris Ruiz, Assistant Vice-President of Marketing and Communications, said her department began the project to develop and implement a university-branded social media platform. Ruiz said University President Dana Gibson commissioned her department to develop a social media policy in 2010.

 "We chose to build the SHSU social media platform using a ‘community’ approach by connecting or aggregating individual social media sites," she said. "The primary benefit of being part of a social media community is the access and exposure to a much larger base.

Ruiz emphasizes the management and content of the sites remains in the hands of the individual organizations.

"During the testing phase, we have been making changes to improve the effectiveness of our social media outreach," she said. "The response has been very encouraging with strong growth in active users, ‘likes’ and Twitter followers."

However, Priority One Communications Director Brooke Swanson said the policy as-is could make it harder for organizations to function.

"We’re concerned about the inconvenience it could create if they can delete everything without warning," Swanson said.

"I’d like it to be more of a monitoring of the group. If they see anything they want changed, let us know and we’ll take care of it and fix it, or suffer the consequences."

The anonymous faculty senator said she would feel more comfortable with a detailed list of steps for what happens when a complaint does arise about a particular account.

"It should also require that all content changes or deletions be immediately reported to the affected account holder," the unnamed senator said.

"With accounts that don’t officially represent university offices-for instance, student organizations accounts-I wonder why there couldn’t be a more straightforward disclaimer to the effect that ‘the content does not represent the views or opinions of the university and the university will not be held liable for any errors in, or damages arising from, content.’"

Some organizations aren’t completely objected to the policy.

Erik Johnson, president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, said there may be a different route the university can take.

"To me, it’s a little too hands-on," Johnson said. "This has a lot of red tape and barriers, but I can see it from a business standpoint. The president wants the best image possible for the university."

Tyler Eberhart, Student Government Association president, said although he hadn’t fully read the document, it is an issue that hasn’t really been dealt with before.

"It’s a new area of concern," Eberhart said. "We haven’t had to make policies to deal with student behavior on the Internet and what they do online"

He also added that while he doesn’t have a concrete opinion on this policy "I’m not sure (the Internet) is something that should be controlled by the university."

One student, who spoke anonymously, felt the policy violates the Student Organization Policy which states that, "while recognizing the rights of student organizations, the university does not grant the right, expressed or implied, to speak for the university."

The student said that because of the Student Organization Policy, the social media rules shouldn’t include student organizations due to the fact that the university isn’t giving them the right to represent the university.

In addition to the freedom of speech issues, faculty have been calling out he university for its decision to implement a social media policy without being put through what they consider official channels, particularly because "the policy affects ‘faculty personnel matters.’"

Loeffler said the Marketing department was overreaching in implementing the policy without due course.

"It was totally inappropriate," Loeffler said. "It effects and involves student, faculty and other university community members. It should go through the Faculty Senate, SGA and the Academic Affairs Council."

The unnamed faculty senator agrees the policy should have gone through some of those committees as well.

"It was surprising this policy was not seen as affecting academics and didn’t go through Academic Policy Council for review," she said.

 "The (social media) policy explicitly states that it applies to individual faculty members as well as departments and student organizations. For instance, if a professor uses social media as a curricular tool, the Senate felt this makes it an academic issue."

She refers to the Academic Policy Council that approves policy relating to, among other things, "faculty personnelmatters."

The social media policy makes several references to faculty, staff, department chairs and student organizations throughout the 13-page document.

Officials also said the policy bypassed the Council of Deans and other governing organizations.

Organizations and faculty members also raised complaints about the ultimate liability of departmental Facebook and Twitter accounts falling on the department chairs, as the policy now states.

Other universities have social media policies, however, officials said that they aren’t as restrictive as SHSU.

The social media policy currently covers Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, geolocation sites, and YouTube. It also gives the university the ability to expand the list if necessary.

Ruiz said the policy is still "in beta form" and is open to any suggestion regarding the policy. 

In response to the issues raised by the university community, Ruiz said that they are looking into the language of the policy.

"We want this to be a very powerful tool to work for us all," Ruiz said.

"This is the perfect time to encourage discussion and make any changes that will improve the use of social media at Sam Houston State, including any amendments to policies and procedures."

She plans to address the Faculty Senate later in the month.

View the Official Sam Houston State University Social Media Community Application. 

Schools: Sam Houston State University Cases: Sam Houston State University: Faculty Member Takes Box Cutter to Students’ Free Speech Wall; Police Threaten Students with Misdemeanor