University ditches controversial social media rules

December 13, 2011

Sam Houston State University’s social media policy that drew heated criticism from a national free-speech organization and student groups has been nixed by campus officials.

Administrators on the 17,000-student public campus in Huntsville, Texas, said they would scrap the Social Media Policy and Procedure Manual that was protested by disparate campus political groups, opting instead to create a new set of rules from scratch.

The school’s policy stipulated that any student group that uses the university’s name or abbreviation must join the official SHSU social media universe or change their name. A student group would have to change its name to something that was not trademarked by SHSU or face legal repercussions.

If a student organization complied with the proposed university rules and joined SHSU’s "social media universe," the group would have to hand over its passwords for Facebook and Twitter accounts. Each group’s social media website would be subject to editing by the university.

"To me, it shows that everything we worked for kind of paid off," said Brian Howard, vice president of the Bearkat Democrats, who along with the campus’s student Republicans, Young Democratic Socialists, and libertarians, met with SHSU administrators to protest the social media rules. "All the effort and all the hoopla-it was all worth it for us."

Howard said the university didn’t make a public announcement about the end of its Social Media Policy and Procedure Manual.

"It just kind of went away," he said. "But I’m satisfied with that. … We would have had to change our name completely" if SMSU stuck with the policy.

SHSU’s oft-debated social media policy was among the most Draconian on any U.S. campus, 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.

 "It is almost unheard of for a university even to publicly contemplate coercing student organizations to hand over their social media passwords," Kissel said. "It also is rare for a university to make the mistake of confusing student organizations’ expression with the official expression of the university. … SHSU made the right choice by abandoning the idea that student organizations are responsible for maintaining the university’s corporate brand image."

A committee of campus administrators, faculty members, and staff was created in November to reconsider the school’s stance on student groups’ Facebook and Twitter presence, according to a report in The Houstonian, a student newspaper.

SHSU’s social media rules were designed so unofficial campus groups that did not speak for the school were not mistaken for official SHSU spokespeople, Frank Holmes, vice president for university advancement, wrote in a letter published by The Houstonian.

"The policy was designed to strengthen the university’s brand and assist members with reaching the audience they are trying to engage-not infringe on individual rights," Holmes wrote. "For those who believe that the policy has language in it that interferes with these freedoms, that is not the case."

The social media policy stems from a commission launched last year by SHSU President Dana Gibson.

Having groups sign up to be part of the universe will "increase SHSU’s ability to respond to a crisis or emergency situation, so we can quickly communicate throughout the social media community by keeping our faculty, staff, students and others informed," Holmes wrote.

Schools: Sam Houston State University