Today’s press release announces a victory for free speech on the Internet at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Last September, UCF student Matthew Walston created a group on the popular site Facebook.com called “Victor Perez is a Jerk and a Fool.” At the time, Perez was running for UCF student senate. Walston’s relatively tame comments inspired Perez to submit a complaint, and Walston was brought up on charges of harassment and personal abuse. After FIRE wrote a letter to UCF administrators on Walston’s behalf, a hearing board found Walston “not in violation” of the personal abuse and harassment regulations.
As FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff stated in the press release,
This case is an excellent demonstration of the perils of vague and overbroad speech codes on college campuses…. By having a policy banning “personal abuse,” UCF made it possible for a student to be dragged through a ludicrous, months-long disciplinary process for calling someone a “jerk” online.
Facebook.com presents a worrisome opportunity for administrations to keep track of the “offensive speech” of their students like never before, extending the reach of unconstitutional speech codes deep into cyberspace. Students need to know that university administrators and police are also on Facebook.com and may be monitoring their activities…. A good rule of thumb for students is that posting something on the Internet is no less public than posting it on a billboard. Your privacy is not assured.
FIRE is seeing an increasing trend toward university and police monitoring of Facebook.com and other, similar websites. Walston’s exoneration represents an important victory for freedom of expression on the Internet for university students. Unfortunately, as Greg stated, universities’ attempts to control student expression on popular college websites continue with no end in sight. FIRE will continue to monitor this critical arena of free expression to defend the premise that on the Internet, just as in their dorms or apartments, the First Amendment still protects the rights of state college and university students.