Schools discipline students over Internet content

February 22, 2006

Four Syracuse University students punished for trashing their teacher on Facebook.com joined the growing number of students nationally whose school has held them accountable for what they put on the Internet.

"Criticism can be considered a matter of free speech. In this particular situation it was the content, and the content was considered as being reviewable as a possible violation of the university code of student conduct," said Kevin Morrow, speaking for SU. "The language and the phrasing of these Facebook postings were extreme."

Some students use Facebook.com as their personal diary. They post pictures and information such as their favorite movies and music, political views, relationship status and sexual orientation. Most students expect only other college students to read what they post because a college e-mail address is needed to access the site.

At SU, a student-created page on Facebook.com used vulgar language to deride teaching assistant Rachel Collins. SU put on probation four students listed as officers on the page, called, "Clearly Rachel Doesn’t Know What She’s Doing . . . EVER," according to Madison Alpern, one of the students punished.

The SU case demonstrated a growing trend where officials nationally are paying attention to what their students are posting on the Internet. Consider:

  • At Lincoln East High School in Nebraska administrators suspended seven male basketball players for two weeks over blog entries that mentioned drinking alcohol, according to a Feb. 12 article in the Omaha World-Herald. 
  • At Northern Kentucky University and North Carolina State University, campus police charged students with violations after finding photos of them drinking alcohol, according to the World-Herald article. 
  • At George Washington University, students were convinced campus police were monitoring Facebook.com, so they posted information to mislead police about a party, according to a story Jan. 8 in The New York Times. When police showed up, they found only cake and cookies decorated with the word "beer."

Here’s a closer look at Facebook.com:

How did SU find out about the page?

Another SU teaching assistant found the Web page last semester and contacted an SU administrator, who then wrote to the director of judicial affairs asking if the material violated SU’s student conduct code, Morrow said. He wouldn’t comment specifically about this case or say whether the university disciplined the students, but said postings such as those in this case could be considered a violation of SU’s Code of Student Conduct.

Morrow cited a section that reads, "conduct which threatens the mental health, physical health or safety of any person or persons including hazing, drug or alcohol abuse and other forms of destructive behavior."

Morrow said SU doesn’t have the time, resources or desire to monitor its students’ Facebook.com postings, but that its judicial affairs office will investigate reports of violations of SU’s student code. The university judicial system has jurisdiction over all alleged code violations, including incidents off campus, according to the judicial affairs handbook.

Alpern said judicial affairs officials met with the four students listed as officers on the site, threatened them with a range of punishments and ultimately required them to make posters about Facebook.com to be put up around campus.

What do the four students say?

Amanda Seideman is listed on the Web site as the page creator. Alpern, Seideman, Colleen Smith and Cait Womble are listed as officers.

"We all just kind of laughed at it. . . . I basically wanted to be part of the group. . . . I should have been, ‘This is mean and cruel and immature,’ and I should have gotten out of it," Alpern said.

Alpern said she did not write the post next to her name on the site, and that Seideman, as the creator, posted it. Only Alpern responded to e-mail requests for an interview. Alpern, 18, now a student at Drexel University in Pennsylvania, said she decided to transfer before she got in trouble.

What does the teacher say?

Collins referred comment to Carol Lipson, director of SU’s Writing Program, who wouldn’t talk about the incident. Lipson spoke in general about Facebook.com and other social networking Web sites such as MySpace.com. <

"They don’t realize how public anything on the Web is," Lipson said. "Even if it gets removed, the Web is archived, so it’ll show up on searches forever. I think it’s something that students don’t quite understand."

What about free speech? Don’t students have a right to say what they want on the Web?

Greg Lukianoff, interim president of a national nonprofit group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said SU should not have punished the students because they have the First Amendment right to voice their opinion even if they use offensive language.

Lukianoff, whose biography on the FIRE Web site says he focused on First Amendment and constitutional law at Stanford Law School, said free speech is protected except in cases such as libel or incitement.

"When people start getting into looser concepts like sensitivity or people’s feelings or broadly defining psychological well-being, they are creating a formula that would allow people in power to arbitrarily censor anybody," Lukianoff said.

But Winthrop Thurlow, assistant attorney general in charge of the state attorney general’s Syracuse Regional Office, said free speech has limitations, especially for students at private institutions.

"One of the things that this university, or a university, may say is, ‘Listen, we’re not limiting a student’s freedom to say whatever he or she pleases. We are however, limiting the behavior of our students.’ In other words . . . they do exercise greater control over those people that they allow to either become or remain students, and those limitations may in fact extend to curtailing speech," Thurlow said.

Alpern said she isn’t sure whether SU had a right to punish her and her three former friends. SU doesn’t run the site, but the students were using their university e-mail addresses to gain access to Facebook.com, she said.

"I feel like someone should do something," Alpern said. "It will get out of hand if there’s no responsibility taken, but it’s like: Is it really the university’s job? I don’t know."

What’s the appeal of Facebook.com and sites like it?

Colgate University senior Amy Dudley, president of Colgate’s student government, said Facebook.com has allowed her to reconnect with friends from her high, middle and elementary school.

She said she and her running mate, senior Preston Burnes, bought advertising on the site for $12 a day when they were campaigning.

"It is a site that is in people’s rotation that they check daily," Burnes said. "There are probably four or five sites, and for me, there’s CNN, Facebook, New York Times, my Web mail account and maybe ESPN.com. It’s a site that I think is in that rotation for a lot of people who check it at least once a day."

Is using Facebook.com safe?

Students often post enough personal information such as address, telephone and birth date for someone to steal their identity, said Detective Chad Munroe, an expert in computer forensics with Syracuse police.

"The problem is you have some not so good people going through these sites and finding that information," Munroe said.

Facebook.com gives users the option of limiting who can view their personal pages by restricting access to people listed as "friends" or "friends of friends," according to the Web site. Specific individuals can also be blocked from viewing a page.

Can posting on Facebook.com affect your chances of getting a job? Yes, said Rebecca Sparrow, director of Cornell University’s Career Services office.

Some employers use the Internet to check on job candidates because it’s simple and cheaper than hiring someone to do a background check, she said.

"We are beginning to hear from employers that Facebook and blogs and other public presentations of people’s selves are becoming factors in the workplace, whether it’s from the initial employment decision to a promotion decision," Sparrow said.

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