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Please Don’t Hit Me With That—Keyboard?

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education contains a special section on information technology that carries an article (subscription required) by UNC-Wilmington professors Jennifer Summerville and John C. Fischetti on the problem of “cyberbullying” in online classes. Having myself been the witness, and occasionally the victim, of a significant amount of good old-fashioned “meatspace” bullying back in elementary school, I was interested to see if our brave new cyberworld had truly modernized the institution of the schoolyard bully. The authors begin:

For three weeks during the fall 2004 semester, we were harassed and threatened by a student taking online courses. He sent many hostile e-mail messages, like “If I find out that you have in any way compromised my ability to get my certificate, I will come after you.”

Back in the days of corded phones and the Commodore 64, threats and harassment from a bully tended to mean that a bully would, for example, (1) threaten to repeatedly bounce a ball off the back of your head and (2) proceed to do so until you gave him your lunch money. The cyberbully described here was somewhat different in nature (if, perhaps, not in spirit). He repeatedly sent “nasty” and “hostile” email messages to classmates and professors. The authors repeatedly describe these emails as “threatening” and “harassing.” For instance, they write:

John [Fischetti, a co-author] discovered that Mr. Bully had no program of study on file with the advising office and asked Mr. Bully to make an appointment with someone in that office. That request was met with more negative and harassing e-mail messages.

Following written campus policies, John contacted the associate dean, who met with the dean of students and university police and then sent a note to Mr. Bully requesting a meeting as soon as possible. That led to Mr. Bully's threatening John for breaching confidence.

The authors go on to complain that Mr. Bully’s messages to the class in general were “generally negative” and that he “ridicule[d]” and “harass[ed]” author Jennifer Summerville “through the course site,” also attacking her integrity.

Mr. Bully sounds like an unpleasant fellow. Unfortunately, the authors’ response is to propose a thoroughly unconstitutional speech code for online classes at a public university. For instance, they write:

Many technology policies refer only to the sending of e-mail messages through university accounts. But students often use other e-mail accounts and see their messages as outside the bounds of the policy. User agreements should prohibit the sending of any threatening, harassing, or otherwise inappropriate message to a member of the university community by any means or medium.

Later in the article, the authors point out with approval that in Summerville’s case, students were bound by a code of conduct that prohibited “threatening, harassing, belligerent, and abusive behavior.” The authors also suggest banning “negative personal comments.”

In short, their recommendation is to enact a speech code. “Threatening, harassing, or otherwise inappropriate” messages are to be prohibited—even on non-university owned email accounts? Put in the context that Summerville and Fischetti do, this is both Orwellian and unconstitutional. How is a student to know what is “inappropriate?” Is calling a professor’s integrity into question, as Mr. Bully does, “inappropriate”? Even if it is, should such an email be forbidden? What if there are legitimate questions about the professor’s integrity? If the “threats” discussed in the article were not serious threats of violence, these would be constitutionally protected as well. And I shudder to think how someone could avoid comments that could be interpreted by someone as inappropriate in, say, a class on sexual behavior—or, for that matter, in a creative writing workshop.

Threats and harassment over the internet can be serious problems—but just saying something is a threat or is harassing doesn’t make it so. All too often, schools have vague definitions of one or both that lead to serious restrictions on expression. For instance, UNC-Wilmington’s sister school at Chapel Hill (also known as my ancient foe) calls it “sexual harassment” when students engage in “sexually explicit statements or questions; sexually explicit jokes or anecdotes; remarks of sexual nature regarding a person’s clothing or body; whistling, ogling, barking, or leering; [and] remarks about sexual activity.” None of these, of course, when not persistently engaged in, can legally be called harassment—and many other schools have even more unconstitutional definitions. This leaves me without a great deal of faith in universities’ ability to administer online harassment codes within the dictates of the law—or even common sense. There is, of course, no constitutional justification for bans on negative personal comments or belligerence. The process of education can be a messy and difficult one—but sacrificing the principles of freedom to ensure online order cannot be an alternative.

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