NYU professor stifles blogging, twittering by journalism student

September 17, 2008

After New York University journalism student Alana Taylor wrote her first embed report for MediaShift on September 5, it didn’t take long for her scathing criticism of NYU to spread around the web and stir conversations. Taylor thought that her professor, Mary Quigley, was not up to speed on social media and podcasting – even though the class she was teaching was called "Reporting Gen Y." And Taylor felt that NYU was not offering her enough classes about new media; she cited the requirement that students bring print editions of the New York Times to class as one example of their outdated mindset.

Not surprisingly, Quigley was not happy with the story and was upset that Taylor had not sought permission to write her first-person report about the class, and told Taylor it was an invasion of privacy to other students in the class. By Taylor’s account, Quigley had a one-on-one meeting with Taylor to discuss the article, and Quigley made it clear that Taylor was not to blog, Twitter or write about the class again. That was upsetting to Taylor, who had been planning a follow-up report for MediaShift that would include Quigley’s viewpoint and interviews with faculty.

Taylor described to me what happened when Quigley brought up the article in class later.

"She told the class to read the article," Taylor said. "Then she asked, ‘You all read Alana’s article, what did you think about it?’ There was silence for a good 30 or 45 seconds, and it was awkward and weird. And she said, ‘OK, we can all agree that there will be no more blogging or Twittering about the class.’ It was weird. It seemed like the students were scared to say anything."

Later, some students in the class asked Taylor outside of class what she did wrong. She explained that according to Quigley, it would be an invasion of the students’ privacy if she wrote about the class. Another student told her, "I didn’t want to say anything in class but I really loved the piece and totally agreed with everything you said." (The other students in the class did not want to be identified in this story.)

Because Taylor felt that writing a follow-up for MediaShift was not a good idea in light of her professor’s admonition, I decided to take on the task of finding out why a journalism student at NYU would not be allowed to report on what was going on in her classroom. First, I wondered what NYU’s policy was on blogging in or about a class. It ends up that there is no policy.

 "We don’t have a policy," said Brooke Kroeger, director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU (the journalism school was recently renamed). "Truthfully it’s never come up before. It’s not the sort of thing that we would control. Professors make their own choices about grading, about deadlines, about standards, about classroom participation – it’s not something we legislate. They’re decided by the instructors generally."

Kroeger would not talk specifically about Taylor’s piece for MediaShift because she said legally she is not allowed to talk about a student’s performance in public. She defended Quigley’s decision to restrict live-blogging and Twittering because it would be a distraction in a classroom, and said professors could choose their own appropriate policy restricing or allowing students to report afterward on what went on in class.

"Given the new means of communication and how instantaneous they are, it might be a good subject for a forum," Kroeger said. "If you follow the Chronicle of Higher Education, you’ll see people come on and talk about IM’ing in class and texting in classes, and it’s distracting. People aren’t excited about that in any circumstance. But on the other hand, we’re providing a total WiFi environment with computers in your face."

Permission Before Blogging

When I approached Quigley to have her explain her ban on blogging, Twittering and writing about what goes on in her class, she at first directed my query to Kroeger. Later, she wrote back to me by email:

I will confirm that I asked the class not to text, email or make cell phone calls during class. It’s distracting to both me and other students, especially in a small class seated around a conference table. This has always been my policy, and I would hazard a guess that it’s the policy of many professors no matter the discipline.

However, I did say after the class session they were free to text, Twitter, blog, email, post on Facebook or whatever outlet they wanted about the course, my teaching, the content, etc. And, because much of the subject matter of this course relates to them and their Gen Y experiences I would not be surprised if they did. At this point, as a course requirement, they all have blogs. [Emphasis added by her.]

So was Quigley now softening her stance on students writing about the substance of her class? When I followed up and asked her whether that meant students still needed to get permission before writing about class, she said: "Yes, I would certainly require a student to ask permission to use direct quotes from the class on a blog written after class."

I wondered if there was a legal basis for NYU requiring students to get permission before live-blogging or even writing about a class afterwards. As a private school, NYU might be able to restrict a student’s reporting on what went on in a classroom – but that would go against everything that journalism schools are teaching students about the First Amendment and freedom of the press.

William Creeley is the director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which helps defend students’ free speech rights. Creeley said that NYU might have legal grounds for restricting what students write about classroom activities, but that it would look hypocritical for a school that touts freedom of the press.

"While it might be technically true [that a private school could restrict speech], it would be evidence of an awfully meager interpretration of the rights of free expression which NYU explicitly guarantees its students in its promotional materials and its student handbook," said Creeley, who got his undegraduate and law school degrees from NYU. "They could make that claim but I don’t know if that would be consistent with their imagination of themselves as a modern university with those rights guaranteed."

As for the claim that live-blogging would be an invasion of privacy, Creeley thought it was more of a red herring.

"The idea that live-blogging or Twittering would be an invasion of privacy – from a legal standpoint, that doesn’t hold water," he said. "There’s no possible expectation on the teacher’s part for privacy about what is taught in the classroom. If that’s the case, then no one could write a teacher feedback form at the end of class. That would go out the window. That’s a far cry from what goes on in one’s own home, or in a telephone coversation or email exchange."

Floyd Abrams is a veteran media lawyer who has argued First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court, and is a partner at Cahill, Gordon & Reindel. He thought that a rule banning live-blogging or Twittering in class made sense, but restricting coverage outside class was not going to work. Here is part of an email he sent me on the subject:

Students have irritated their professors for years. William F. Buckley’s ‘God and Man at Yale’ was a best-selling early 1950s expose of what Buckley viewed as the teaching to Yale undergraduates of left-wing, collectivist, godless mush. Professors objected to the notion that what they said in class should be publically revealed and claimed that such revelations would be ‘chilling.’ Just a few years ago, Columbia undergraduates who viewed certain pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli statements of certain professors as being false, misleading and sometimes intimidating went public to newspapers, in films, and the like expressing their dismay. Once again, the professors and others in the faculty believed that such criticism – based on what had been said in class – was inappropriate.

I disagree. My own view is that while student commentary that is critical of ongoing classes can lead to a level of tension in class at the same time it makes extremely difficult a teacher-student relationship…it does not violate the ‘privacy’ of the classroom and should not be banned or punished. Would it be llegal to do so? It certainly wouldn’t be unconstitutional since NYU isn’t a state school and thus subject to First Amendment limitations. Whether it violates NYU rules I have no idea. I would be very surprised, however, if NYU permitted a student to be punished for writing such a critique. Surprised and disappointed.

Consulting the NYU Journalism Handbook

So what kind of applicable rules does NYU have in its Journalism Handbook for Students? The Handbook’s author, NYU assistant professor and tech journalist Adam Penenberg, was quick to point me to a passage that would call into question Taylor’s "undercover" reporting technique:

Before engaging in any undercover work for a class assignment, consult your professor. Carefully consider whether your reporting could violate criminal or civil law. Weigh the potential harm involved. Could relying on subterfuge get you arrested? Could it lead to violence? Does it invade someone’s privacy, especially in a non-public area like a home or an office? Are there laws in your state against recording without a person’s permission, or specifically against using hidden cameras? Might it undermine the validity of your story? These are serious questions to consider.

Penenberg thought that I should have required Taylor to get permission from her professor before writing about the class, even though it would be a moot point to ask permission to go undercover of the person who is the subject of the story. Penenberg explains that there is a difference in classroom discussions when they are private or for public discussion, and that the tenor would change if students and professor knew they were being recorded by a journalist or blogger.

"I have taught classes in which the tenor of conversation could have changed drastically if a student were to announce that she were going to blog about it," he said. "For example, in a media ethics course we talked about naming the accused in rape cases but not the alleged victim. This, as you can imagine, led to a very contentious debate, because false accusations can ruin a life and career. In a classroom you are safe to express unpopular opinions but you probably wouldn’t do it if you felt it would end up on a blog post somewhere."

Penenberg said that the school’s policy is that they would require a student to ask permission before live-blogging a class or blogging about it after the fact or writing an article.

"That said, I already allow students to blog about a [grad school] class I teach," he said. "As part of my syllabus for ‘Guerrilla News,’ I have students blog about their multimedia projects, and that includes, if they so choose, to blog about what transpires inside and outside of class. I invite speakers to come in and students can blog about that, too. Part of the blog focus is to help students research their topic more thoroughly; the other is to be the ‘reality show’ behind the making of their multimedia project. But another professor might feel differently."

While Penenberg touted the multimedia strengths of NYU’s journalism graduate program, Kroeger defended the undergraduate program by saying that new media was not shunted off into specialized classes but weaved into basic courses. She noted that classes now employed "beat blogs," a specialty of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who also teaches an undergraduate course on "The Rise of the Web."

I asked Rosen what he thought would be the right policy about students blogging about their classes.

"Often our policy discussions begin when an incident occurs and we have to think about it…’what’s our policy?’" he said via email. "This story may well have that effect. And the handbook, a faculty document, may well prohibit what Alana did; but to me that is not necessarily the key question because the handbook is ours to write and re-write. It has to adapt. I’m not sure what the ‘right’ policy is, Mark. I know that when a journalist wants to write about [or film] an NYU class we are required to get privacy waivers…It’s not clear to me that NYU would even allow us to have a faculty policy that reporting on a class without privacy waivers is okay, as long as you are embedded and undercover. That’s the kind of thing we have to know before we re-write a handbook or make rules for students."

Kroeger, meanwhile, defends the decisions of her professors to set rules around blogging and writing about their classes, and thinks a forum on the topic would be a good way to share knowledge with other schools and brainstorm ideas. When I told her that NYU as a private school could legally restrict students from writing about classes, she demurred from that option.

"You could say that, but that’s not the way I would address this," she said. "I just wouldn’t go there. In the end we have the same issues that any academic institution would have. It’s not quite a pure journalistic experience, it’s a classroom experience also, and there are some values that come into chafing. There’s a little bit of awkwardness there and we want to teach journalism and the highest level of journalism and all that that entails."