Do Cleveland County college students have freedom of speech on Facebook?

October 18, 2011

SHELBY — Cleveland Community College says a western North Carolina man kicked off his college campus for a controversial Facebook posting would have violated CCC’s code of conduct if he were a student here.

Marc Bechtol, a student at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, was removed from CVCC last week, then later readmitted as a student, after he criticized the school’s relationship with a debit card that doubles as a student ID. 

“Anyone know any good viruses to send (CVCC)?” Bechtol wrote on the CVCC Facebook page, according to The Star’s news partner, WSOC-TV. “Maybe we should register them with every porn site known to man.”

 A couple minutes later, Bechtol posted, “Maybe that would be excessive,’” WSOC-TV reported.

CCC spokeswoman Margo Greene said CCC has no policy directly related to free speech or Facebook, but appropriate student behavior is outlined through the school’s student code of conduct. The code can be found online at CCC’s website.


‘Intentional disruption’

 “Just as CVCC, if we had something like this happen, it would be a student code of conduct violation versus a Facebook/freedom of speech issue,” Greene wrote in an email message to The Star. “Based on (Bechtol’s) comments, he was violating the (CCC) code of conduct.”

Green said Bechtol’s comments specifically violated CCC’s code because of “the intentional disruption of College activities and operations of the College.”

Bechtol told WSOC-TV that his comments were satirical and he was exercising his right to free speech.

The CCC policy bans, “Intentional obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration or disciplinary proceedings, or other College activities, including public service functions and other duly authorized activities on College premises. This includes any inappropriate behavior that interferes with the operations of the College.”

But that doesn’t mean CCC would remove all negative posts on its Facebook page, Greene said.

“We encourage comments, but also have the right to remove any comments we believe are inappropriate,” she wrote. “Does that mean if a student says something terrible about the college, we will remove the post? Not at all; but if the comment is offensive or shows ill-will toward a faculty member or another student in any way, it will be removed.”

Greene cited the “Student Responsibilities” section as guidelines to how CCC students should conduct themselves. That section of college policy states, “Cleveland Community College reserves the right to maintain a safe and orderly educational environment for students, faculty and staff.  Therefore, when, in the judgment of college officials, a student‘s conduct disrupts or threatens to disrupt the college community, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken to restore and protect the sanctity of the community.”


A growing problem?

Azhar Majeed, associate director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, reviewed CCC’s student responsibilities section on its code of conduct and said the policy is similar to what is normally outlined in other college and university codes. He said freedom of speech plays a critical role in empowering students and making the school a better institution.

“If you’re making your fellow students or other people on campus aware of a problem, then that should be encouraged if anything, not punished,” Majeed said. “… It’s one thing to take down a post that you don’t like on your college’s own Facebook page. It’s another thing to bring that student up on disorderly conduct charges or disruption charges.”

Majeed said FIRE is seeing increasing examples of students having their freedom of speech infringed upon at their college campuses. He cited similar instances at the University of Georgia and Raleigh’s St. Augustine College, where students faced disciplinary action because of publicized disapproval of university policies.

Majeed said there is an exception to First Amendment rights: when someone’s speech advocates “immediate unlawful action.” But Majeed said he doesn’t think Bechtol’s comments fall under this exception.

“I think a reasonable reading of the comment is that is was satire, a biting criticism of the university," Majeed said.


Public vs. private

Rules about freedom of speech differ for private schools and public colleges like CCC.

Majeed said private schools aren’t required to guarantee students freedom of speech through the First Amendment. FIRE, however, looks at private schools’ individual policies regarding students and free speech as a way to monitor how students’ rights are upheld.

At Gardner-Webb University, a private, Christian school, student speech is monitored on the school’s Facebook site, said Noel Manning, GWU communications director.

A student’s personal site, however, is a different story.

“Students have the right to say whatever they want to on their personal sites,” Manning said.

GWU monitors the comments on its Facebook page for “hate speech,” but leaves room for students to express personal opinions, he said. 

Manning said students wouldn’t be disciplined for posting hate speech on the Facebook site; the offending comments would simply be removed.

Schools: Catawba Valley Community College Cases: Catawba Valley Community College: Student Banned from Campus after Protesting College’s Deal with Debit Card Company on Facebook