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Student Denied Degree Due to MySpace Picture; Litigation Commenced

The battle between students and university administrators over online privacy has reached a new—though sadly predictable—level of ludicrousness.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Stacy Snyder, a 27-year-old student at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, was denied her education degree (and the accompanying teaching certificate) after student-teacher advisors and university officials discovered an “unprofessional” picture of the degree candidate on her MySpace page. The picture, which portrays Snyder drinking from a plastic “Mr. Goodbar” cup and wearing a pirate hat at a 2005 Halloween party, is accompanied by the caption “Drunken Pirate.” Despite the fact that (a) Snyder was of legal drinking age at the time of the picture; (b) the picture was posted on an outside, non-university website; and (c) the drinking captured in the picture happened in a private, non-university setting, Millersville officials decided that the picture alone was enough to cost Snyder her degree and teaching certificate, despite the fact that Snyder was on the dean’s list and received positive evaluations for her final student/teacher evaluation in every area except for “professionalism.” The school instead awarded Snyder a degree in English.

In response, Snyder has sued, requesting relief in the form of her education degree and $75,000 dollars in compensatory damages.

The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal’s coverage of the incident sheds yet more light on the disturbing denial. According to her lawsuit, Snyder's student-teacher advisors at Conestoga Valley High School (where Snyder was fulfilling her student-teaching requirements) were the first to discover the photo, and confronted Snyder about it, accusing her of “incompetence” and telling her that “she should have been removed from her student-teaching position months ago.” In turn, the dean of Millersville’s School of Education, Jane S. Bray, had a meeting with Snyder, accusing her of “promoting underage drinking” and stripping Snyder of her education degree. Instead of pursuing a career in teaching, Snyder, a mother of two, now works as a nanny.

Barring any as-of-yet unknown revelations about her student-teaching conduct and her coursework, the conduct of Snyder’s student-teacher advisors and the Millersville administrators is outrageous. Snyder should be awarded her degree immediately. Online glimpses of her private life, insofar as they did not portray any illegal activity whatsoever, should in no way bar her from receiving her duly-earned degree. Since when are teachers required to forego any semblance of an adult social life? Since when did a student’s normal, non-criminal private life outside of the classroom become suitable grounds for evaluation, and even the denial of a degree?

Unfortunately, as MySpace and other online social networking sites continue to gain popularity among students, university administrators have proven all too willing and eager to police student activity online. This increased monitoring often comes with ruinous and chilling consequences for student expression and behavior—as evidenced all too clearly last fall by the case of Justin Park, a student at Johns Hopkins University whose attempt at a humorous party invitation on MySpace resulted in a suspension.

As Greg and I wrote earlier this year in an article about the contentious online intersection of student privacy and administrative snooping for The Boston Phoenix:

[P]rivacy is quickly succumbing to a digital onslaught of personal information run wild. How do we as a society deal with living lives more publicly than ever before? Maybe we simply have to become more sophisticated and accept that people behave badly sometimes, just as they always have; the only difference now is that we can see that misbehavior in color on our Web browsers. As the information citizens have about one another approaches the infinite, respecting privacy will increasingly be a duty incumbent upon the viewer.

Administrators, stop the madness! Respect student privacy online, and give Snyder the degree she seems so clearly to deserve.

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