The New Frontier in Censorship?

By on May 14, 2007

Politico.com posted an interesting article last week about the uncomfortable intersection of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook and core political speech.

Of concern to FIRE, of course, is how possible online censorship may affect the freedoms of college students and faculty. The fear is that administrators will monitor such sites for student activity, an issue explored at length by FIRE President Greg Lukianoff and FIRE staffer Will Creeley in The Boston Phoenix earlier this spring. Examples of administrative snooping online abound; for example, at Johns Hopkins University, where student Justin Park was suspended for language used in a flyer he had posted on Facebook. 

Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, had this to say about appropriate speech on Facebook:

Attacks on individuals — groups saying ‘Ben Smith is evil’ — would get taken down. … But if it’s “Hillary Clinton is evil” or “Rudy Giuliani is evil,” that’s just fine with us, because we think that’s core political speech.

While it’s a good thing that Mr. Kelly recognizes that saying a politician is “evil” is core political speech, he should remember that so is calling a student government official or the president of a school club “evil.” In other words, if “Ben Smith” is a student senator, then “Ben Smith is evil” actually is core political speech. FIRE had a case last year at the University of Central Florida where a student got in trouble for starting a Facebook group calling a candidate for the school’s student government “a Jerk and a Fool.” The creator of the group had political disagreements with the candidate and expressed them online. For that, the UCF administration was willing to reprimand him.

It’s easy to see how these new forums for expression could be corrupted by collegiate administrations’ interference. Aside from the use of its website, Facebook’s management has had nothing to do with FIRE’s cases so far, but will that organization or others like it stay neutral in the future, or will they work with college administrators to undermine students’ freedoms? Let’s hope not.