Lessons from the Communications Revolution

February 26, 2007

As Greg and Will pointed out in their Boston Phoenix cover story last week, social networking sites like Facebook.com are giving university administrators an unprecedented look into the way students actually talk to one another. This, in turn, has led to an increase in cases of students being subjected to university discipline for the content of their online speech.
This past fall, for example, Johns Hopkins University subjected 18-year-old junior Justin Park to some of the harshest treatment we have ever seen from a university because of a Halloween party invitation that Park posted on Facebook. What began as nothing more than an ill-advised joke resulted in punishment for Park and a draconian new speech code for the rest of the student body, all because a university administrator found the posting on Facebook and brought it to the university’s attention. Similarly, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is currently under investigation by the university for posting a comment on Facebook in which he jokingly suggested that supporters of the university’s now-defunct mascot, Chief Illiniwek, “throw a tomahawk” in the face of the mascot’s most vocal opponent. As I pointed out in an earlier blog entry about the Illinois case, a cursory search of Facebook reveals that the type of language used by these students is typical of the over-the-top way that students talk to one another, particularly online.
FIRE’s position on this issue is simple: college administrators should not be policing the content of student speech on social networking sites. The kind of speech that is constitutionally unprotected almost always must be actually directed at someone and must have a particular result: harassment, fighting words, true threats, and incitements to violence all involve something more than the mere dissemination of opinions and require a very specific result from their intended audience, such as an immediate violent reaction or a reasonable fear of bodily harm or death. Therefore, comments directed at a Facebook user’s friends and found by an administrator policing the website will rarely, if ever, fall into the category of constitutionally unprotected speech. On the other hand, administrative policing of student speech will frequently, if not always, have a significant chilling effect on free expression. Free speech is on the losing side of that equation.
At the same time, students should recognize that a conversation on a Facebook “wall” is quite different from one that takes place in someone’s dorm room. Potential employers and other people to whom students might wish to appear professional all have access to these conversations, and may be forming opinions and making decisions on the basis of them. As a thoughtful and sympathetic reader of Greg and Will’s piece wrote to FIRE in a letter last week: “[P]art of the answer to your issue is to teach young folks that although they may not be immortal, their online words may [be.] I really wonder about what will happen to some of the facebook/myspace generation as employers, essentially, do an open sources opposition research on them in archive.org… I worry about young people not understanding the social consequences of tattooing their faces, so to speak.” This is a point well-taken, and students should indeed be aware that online speech has a particular staying power that is unique to the medium.
So really, the “campus communication explosion” that has resulted from these new sites provides everyone with a learning opportunity. Students should realize that there really are some things it may be better not to post, and that just because something is permissible does not mean it is advisable. Administrators should realize that while they may not like the way that students talk to one another, these exchanges are simply a natural part of student communication and are not something to be censored or punished.

Schools:  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Johns Hopkins University