Today’s Inside Higher Ed features an article about an instance of illegal censorship at Troy University in Alabama, which holds the dubious distinction of being one of the targets of FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project because of its unconstitutional speech code. The latest instance of censorship at Troy came last Thursday, when nearly 2,000 out of 3,000 printed copies of the Tropolitan, Troy’s main campus newspaper, were stolen from their distribution sites. Tropolitan staffers surmise that the theft might be connected to the fact that an article in that edition of the paper revealed that university police officers might be monitoring students’ entries on Facebook.com, a popular website for college students.
While a university police officer did visit the paper’s offices that morning to protest the story’s implication that the police were monitoring Facebook postings, it’s important to note that nobody seems to have any real idea of who might have stolen the papers. But, as Tropolitan editor Sam Neely noted, the Facebook monitoring story was “the biggest thing in the paper,” and this certainly wouldn’t be the first time massive numbers of copies of a newspaper were stolen in an attempt at vigilante censorship. For instance, take the University of California at Berkeley, or perennial favorite the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or the Student Press Law Center’s report on newspaper thefts from just the winter of 2005–2006.
What makes this case even more interesting to FIRE is that we are seeing an increasing number of case submissions regarding students being punished for things they said on Facebook or similar websites where college students virtually congregate. It’s critically important that college students realize that anyone with a “.edu” e-mail address—including administrators or police officers—can read just about anything on Facebook. And if you could be punished (say, under an unconstitutional speech code) for something you say in person on campus, you can be punished just as easily for something you said on Facebook—maybe even more easily, since proof of what was said (and maybe a profound lack of context) is just a printout away. Students, beware.