Restrictive Social Media Policy at Sam Houston State U. Exposed at ‘eCampus News’

By on October 7, 2011

The website eCampus News has reported on the dual controversies swirling around Sam Houston State University (SHSU): the university’s deeply restrictive proposed social media policy and its outrageous censorship of a student "free speech wall."

The site’s Dennis Carter writes:

The student backlash to the new policies culminated Sept. 22 when the disparate campus political groups sponsored a "free speech wall" and invited students to write anything they wanted on the wall – a protest against what students and free speech advocates have called a trampling of constitutional rights.

"The social media policy is in theory optional, but if it means this level of control over the name of an organization, that goes too far," said Adam Kissel, vice president of programs for the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has tracked strict internet stances in higher education. "Student groups should not be subject to a university’s special rules just because they won’t join the official online community."

Indeed, the policy goes too far, as we wrote in yesterday’s national press release:

The policy claims that the letters "SHSU" and similar terms have been trademarked, so student organizations that want to use these terms in their online identities (including the names of their organizations) will have to join a very speech-restrictive "Official Community" controlled by the university. Joining the "Official Community" requires turning over a group’s social media passwords to the university, giving the university authority to approve a group’s "official profile image[s]/avatars," and giving the university authority to edit and delete a group’s social media content. If the groups do not join, they will have to change their online names so as not to use the terms trademarked by SHSU.

Carter further reports:

Colleges and universities across the country have expressed concern about trademarking school names on popular social media sites, Kissel said, but SHSU is likely the first to take such a restrictive posture.

"No reasonable person would confuse a student organization with being the officially recognized spokesperson of the university," Kissel said. "Everyone already knows those groups speak only for themselves."

FIRE has fought and won in other cases when a university tried to prevent others from using its name. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) withdrew its unconstitutional demand that a former student take down a website criticizing the university, ucla-weeding101.info. (The website is still up.) And the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) abandoned its attempt to force the owner of a website called The Dark Side of UCSB from using the letters "UCSB" in his web address. (This site also is still up.)

So, the SHSU student protesters are on solid ground when they protest for the right to use their group names, such as "SHSU Lovers of Liberty," as their official names on social media such as Facebook. SHSU may not prevent student groups from simply saying who they are online. SHSU also may not demand that students give away some of their speech rights to the university in order to be allowed to use their names like this.

Yet, when four student organizations protested the policy via their free speech wall, SHSU committed additional violations of students’ free speech rights: After a faculty member vandalized the wall using a box cutter, SHSU police warned the students that they could be in violation of the law for having offended the professor. (Read yesterday’s FIRE press release and visit our SHSU case page for full documentation.)

Thanks to eCampus News for focusing additional scrutiny on SHSU’s myriad First Amendment troubles. Supporters can contact SHSU President Dana Gibson about these issues through our website here.

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