There’s a movement afoot in state legislatures to ban employers and universities from demanding control of or monitoring the social media accounts of their students or employees. One such bill specifically aimed at students unanimously passed the California Senate yesterday. Advocates of these laws justifiably worry that, when students are required to provide their usernames to their schools—and sometimes even to turn over the passwords to their accounts—universities are infringing on students’ expressive rights and invading student privacy. This kind of monitoring has caught on quickest in the case of student athletes.
The University of Kentucky (UK) and University of Louisville (UL) seem hell-bent on proving these worries right. According to an article in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) that I first thought was a parody, UK and UL have been using social media monitoring programs called UDiligence ($6,450 a year for UL) and Centrix Social ($6,000 a year for UK) to monitor the Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube profiles of most or all of their student athletes. These programs search for keywords, set by administrators, and send alerts to coaches or administrators when they are used by a student. Most of the terms are the names of sports agents, but not all of them are. Here’s the list of "flagged" terms provided by the Courier-Journal:
| University of Kentucky:
| University of Louisville:
As a free speech advocate, when I read this list, with terms like "gay," "KKK," "murder," "drugs," and "drunk driving," all I can think of is how this will discourage the head-smackingly obvious legitimate uses of these terms. Woe to the openly gay athlete at UK. Too bad for the UL athlete who loses his friend in a drunk driving accident. As for the others, while many of these terms are well-known, others I had to look up. Many appear to refer to various kinds of drugs or alcohol, while "gazongas" is simply a slang term for breasts, and GNOC is an acronym for "get nude on camera." (As an aside, if you don’t work at a free speech organization, I highly recommend that you not Google those at your workplace).
While it’s understandable that universities would want to know when its athletes are dealing with sports agents (which could make them ineligible for college play), their foray into monitoring references to drugs or alcohol starts to get a little creepy. Can a 21-year-old athlete really not mention on Facebook that he likes Sam Adams beer (or, for that matter, the signer of the Declaration of Independence) without being called down to the athletic department for some kind of intervention? This journey into creepiness gets worse when athletic departments start delving into the sexual practices or preferences of athletes. While using the term "gazongas" is not particularly classy, we should hesitate before we make it a matter for administrative attention.
It’s possible that when most of these terms are flagged, all the universities do is look at the context of the posting and only call down the athlete if it’s warranted. Unfortunately, we know that universities don’t always act rationally when it comes to Internet postings. And the fact that "[b]oth UK and U of L refused to give any information on instances where students were disciplined for flagged posts, saying that would violate student privacy," is also more than a little concerning. FIRE hopes that UK and UL will see fit to assure the public that students won’t be punished for innocent and/or protected expression.