Looking back on FIRE’s work last year, several trends stand out: the disturbing rise of student-led censorship, the increased public awareness of the importance of the right of private conscience, the continued pervasiveness of speech codes and the often willful misinterpretation of “harassment” to squelch speech. One trend, however, strikes me as being truly unique to 2006: the rise of censorship cases and other administrative abuses involving social networking websites like Facebook.com.
In 2006, FIRE witnessed a dramatic increase in case submissions involving social networking websites like Facebook.com and Myspace.com. In February, we exposed an incident at the University of Central Florida in which a student was charged with harassment for calling a student government candidate a “jerk and a fool” on Facebook. Meanwhile, at Syracuse University, students who created a Facebook group to make fun of a teaching assistant were expelled from the class and placed on “disciplinary reprimand,” and two students at Cowley College in Kansas were banned from participating in theater department activities after they complained about the theater department on a MySpace blog.
Then, in November of 2006, FIRE witnessed one of the most severe punishments it has ever seen meted out for pure speech. At Johns Hopkins University, Justin Park, an 18-year-old junior, was suspended for an entire year for posting an “offensive” Halloween party invitation on Facebook.com. His punishment also included 300 hours of community service, an assignment to read 12 books and write a reflection paper on each, and mandatory attendance at a workshop on diversity and race relations. The incident also led the university to pass an absurd and wildly overbroad speech code prohibiting “rude, disrespectful behavior.”
While after weeks of public pressure the university backed away from its original punishment, and reached a resolution that satisfied Park, the fact that any punishment remained at all—and that a ludicrous speech code was adopted—should give any student, parent, or potential applicant serious pause. Can a university that claims to respect free speech be taken seriously if it threatens to essentially expel a student and ruin his academic career for a joke gone wrong? Earlier this week, in large part for its remarkable overreaction to online speech, FIRE declared Hopkins its first-ever “Censor of the Year” for 2006.
So is the rise of cases centered around online speech just another surge in the cyclical ebb and flow of campus censorship, or is something more profound happening here? I would say it’s a bit of both. On the one hand, for a long time now —as amply evidenced by FIRE’s extensive case archive—university administrations have not exactly been the greatest proponents of robust free speech. On the other hand, the scale, pervasiveness, and openness of sites like Facebook offer a potential for public communication unlike any medium that has previously existed.
Social networking sites provide an unprecedented look into the way students actually talk to one another. Whereas invitations to parties were once sent out on multicolored rectangular fliers, they are now distributed via e-mail and posted to students’ Facebook accounts. The difference between the two methods lies in more than just the medium used to convey information; it is that the means dramatically affects both what students feel comfortable saying and who comprises the potential audience. Not only can students see these invitations—or other on-line discussions, jokes, comments or commentary—but so can virtually anyone who uses the internet. I have gathered from various Facebook-related seminars I have attended in the last year that many administrators have taken to policing Facebook, looking for illegal behavior or even offensive comments by students. From their reconnaissance work administrators, and perhaps the public at large as well, are discovering something that should surprise no one: college students can be rude, disrespectful, intentionally provocative, ironic, both actually and jokingly insulting, hyperbolic—and they even crack jokes and use language and rapid-fire references that people outside their age bracket cannot even begin to comprehend.
This is really nothing new—young adults have always communicated in a way that often mystifies or shocks the older generation—but our access to this speech and our candid view into students’ interpersonal communication is. Students need to understand that if they publish pictures of themselves engaging in illegal or otherwise punishable activity, that their friends are not the only people who will see them. Administrators and the public, however, need to understand that they should not be trolling the internet looking for offensive speech by students. Students do not have a duty to be polite or cautious when joking or otherwise communicating with their friends or peers, and it is not the job of administrators to make students communicate in a manner they deem appropriate.
The results of increased administrative policing of Facebook or other social networking sites are predictable. (1) We will continue to see an uptick in cases of students being punished for online speech, because huge swaths of normal student communication may be considered verboten in the current campus environment. (2) Many students will react to the increased policing of online speech with increased vitriol against the imposition of PC speech norms that outlaw what were previously private communications between students and their friends. (3) Lawsuits will be filed by punished students, and public universities that attempt to punish pure speech in the new online arena will lose. (4) Finally, the law itself will have to change to better accommodate the reality of mass online communication.
In the end, two primary possibilities present themselves. One is that after a long and probably nasty fight, administrations will realize that inter-student online communication is sometimes coded, sarcastic, and harsh—and thus incredibly easy to misinterpret—and that it is neither wise, nor even really possible, to police all of it. The second option, seriously discussed and even endorsed at a recent sports law conference I attended, is that a whole new kind of administrative bureaucracy will arise: full-time campus internet cops. I hope for the first option, but I fear that because of the zeal of university administrators to ensure that no student anywhere ever feels the slightest offense, the second option is also depressingly likely.
As pleasant as politeness may be, it is a value of minuscule importance when compared with the essentiality of open and robust discussion on our college campuses. I hope administrators will understand that we are experiencing an ever-expanding revolution in communication, and that we should never lose site of the incredible opportunities presented by these new technologies. Today’s social networking sites allow university students to engage in discussions—both profound and lowbrow, inspiring and insulting—in ways never before available. But despite the change in medium, the core value of free speech remains the same. Despite the change in visibility and method, the content of student speech online is doubtless little different from student speech before the advent of social networking sites. In the ongoing search for identity and individual truth, students will engage in conversations others may deem inappropriate, just as they always have. The fact that social networking sites make this type of speech more accessible than it previously has been does not necessitate a concordant rise in monitoring and punishment. As ever, occasional offense is a small price to pay for continuing to honor the wisdom of the Bill of Rights as we navigate through this unparalleled communications revolution.