Western Kentucky U. Getting Tough on Social Media at Expense of First Amendment

By on February 27, 2012

As reported late last week by the College Heights Herald and today by the Associated Press, Western Kentucky University is making alarming inroads against its students’ use of social media. First, WKU President Gary Ransdell took to the university’s official Facebook page with this message for students about "responsible" use of social media applications. Ransdell wrote in part that  

We, at WKU, have become particularly conscious lately of some who are misusing social media and using some poor judgment. So my message here is "Be smart." Use social media thoughtfully; always remember what you send is permanent and can be viewed years from now. Employers do their homework. They can and will track ways in which prospective employees have used social media. We, at WKU, track such things as well. Be smart and remember the Golden Rule. It applies as much to the use of social media as it does to how we conduct our daily lives. Think twice before you hit the "post" button or "send" key. Be smart, Hilltoppers! 

According to the Herald, this was partially in response to the existence of a "Fake Gary Ransdell" Twitter account (@PimpRansdell), which at WKU’s instigation was shut down by Twitter for several weeks between January and February this year. As illustrated by the Herald in particular, Ransdell’s Facebook dispatch is anything but friendly advice—indeed, by all appearances a warning to all students contemplating criticizing (or satirizing) him or WKU. It seems, in fact, that the administration is already hard at work cracking down in this area. As the Herald reports: 

Corie Martin, Creative Web Services Manager, said her office is working to expand a policy in the student handbook regarding "external communications" into a larger section on cyber harassment and impersonation.

"Cyber-harassment and cyberbullying, cyber-impersonations — including these accounts that people are setting up: fake accounts — those things are illegal in the state of Kentucky," Martin said.

[...]

Martin said WKU takes harassment seriously.

"We will be adding information in the student handbook going forward about all of this type of stuff, so we’re working with Student Affairs, Judicial Affairs," she said. "For now, we’re working with the WKU police in some cases." 

Gee, if only Adam Goldstein of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) were anywhere nearby, he’d probably have a word or two to say about all this. Ah, wait, here he is: 

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center, said the policy in the student handbook about inappropriate communication is unconstitutional in its current form. [Just last week I wrote so as well.]

"It doesn’t resemble constitutional — it’s not in the vicinity of constitutional," Goldstein said. "If they think they can enforce that, they will come to find out they’re wrong, hopefully before they actually get to court. I don’t even know why they would write that into the handbook."

Goldstein said the word "inappropriate" makes the policy unconstitutional.

"Inappropriate — that’s really where this word falls down or where this policy falls down," Goldstein said. "Harassment has a specific legal definition. You can’t harass somebody, and that can exceed the First Amendment, and you can be punished for that."

[...]

"As long as the word ‘inappropriate’ is there, that just means we’re going to punish whatever we don’t like, and as the government you positively cannot do that ever," he said. 

Then there’s the matter of the @PimpRansdell Twitter account, which WKU was concerned would be mistaken for an official WKU account—even though it contained the word "pimp" and, well, just read the tweets. On this, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte says:  

"The trademark law doesn’t say, ‘No one can use your logo or your name.’ It says ‘No one can use your logo or your picture or your name in a way that causes confusion of the public,’" LoMonte said.

LoMonte said it seems that the content of @PimpRansdell is clear enough to show that it is not an official account.

"I think that if the humor leaps off the page that no reasonable person is going to think that the president of a university would maintain a Twitter account like that," LoMonte said.

Goldstein adds:

"I refuse to accept that the president of an institution like Western Kentucky University could have that thin of a skin. I refuse to envision Dr. Ransdell sitting under his desk and crying because people on the Internet were mean to him."

Especially with the SPLC gleefully mincing each and every one of WKU’s defenses here, it’s easy to take this all in with a bit of a laugh. But the prospect of WKU’s clear signals of its intent to intrude on the free speech rights of its students is alarming and will have dramatic consequences for speech at WKU. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF’s) Hanni Fakhoury tells the AP, "If you don’t know whether what you’re going to say is going to get you in trouble, you’re better off just not saying it and not getting in trouble … And there you have it right there, speech is chilled."

We’re glad that this issue is on the radar of organizations like EFF and the SPLC. It’s on FIRE’s radar as well, and we will be monitoring this and helping do whatever is necessary to protect students’ First Amendment rights at WKU. We’ll keep you posted. 

Schools: Western Kentucky University