Colleges grab Facebook posts to punish student, fire prof

July 13, 2011

Facebook postings by a student and a professor have been used to justify punishment for the members of college communities, officials with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have confirmed.

The situations arose in separate cases, and have generated legal actions in response, the organization announced, after one student was prevented from participating in a graduation because of a Facebook statement, and a faculty member at a Michigan school was dismissed for his posting.

In the professor’s case, the organization said, Jason Liptow, an adjunct professor at Mid Michigan Community College, was told he broke confidentiality rules when he posted: "Student e-mailed me wanting to know how he could pass the class, he hadn’t been there and failed three open-book tests."

"That was it," said the FIRE report. "There was nothing derogatory about the student… and there was no mention of the specifics of the course or any other level of detail that would give the college reason to invoke rules of confidentiality."

FIRE reported that the comment was generated by one of Liptow’s students who missed much of the class and then asked during the last week of class what the student could do to get a passing grade.

MMCC then decided not to renew Liptow’s contract, "in spite of his four years of service as an adjunct professor with nary a prior complaint."

FIRE noted the school didn’t even have a Facebook policy at the time.

The report said a legal action has begun on behalf of Liptow, and a decision is expected by fall.

In the student’s case, Roman Caple has launched a legal action against Saint Augustine’s College after he was forbidden from taking part in spring 2011 graduation ceremonies for a comment he posted on Facebook.

It referenced how the college was handling its recovery from tornado damage, FIRE reported.

Caple’s complaint, filed in North Carolina state court, alleges that SAC violated its extensive promises of freedom of expression when it disciplined him for what it called a "negative social media exchange."

"Like any reasonable student, Roman Caple believed Saint Augustine’s guarantees of freedom of expression were genuine. But the college betrayed Roman’s trust in an incredibly petty, mean-spirited way," FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley said. "This filing sends a message not just to Saint Augustine’s, but to private colleges across the country: If you promise your students freedom of expression, you can’t break that promise without consequences."

The tornado hit Raleigh on April 16 and cut off power to many students. Two days later, the college announced via Facebook it would reopen. But following complaints, SAC announced a public meeting with the utility.

Caple then posted: "Here it go!!!!! Students come correct, be prepared, and have supporting documents to back up your arguments bcuz SAC will come hard!!!! That is all."

The college argued Caple, like other students, is "responsible for protecting the reputation of the college and supporting its mission."

Schools: St. Augustine’s University Cases: Saint Augustine’s College: Student Prohibited from Walking at Graduation Due to Facebook Post