Imagine this: You are a senior at Wright State University about to begin your final semester in January 2019. After returning from winter break, you learn that WSU’s faculty have voted to authorize a strike, which means that some of your classes are going to be combined, moved online, or taught by a substitute professor. You want to know why the faculty decided to strike, so you go to WSU’s Facebook page, which WSU described as “a positive, welcoming community for Wright State-related news, events, and general discussions.” Reading through the debates in the comments, you discover that the overwhelming amount of comments about the strike portray WSU in a positive light. After your close the browser tab, you come away with the impression that your peers and the general public support WSU and that the faculty members backing the strike are being unreasonable.
This scenario undoubtedly occurred last year when the WSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (“AAUP-WSU”) engaged in what is thought to be the second-longest faculty strike in the history of the United States, running from Jan. 22 to Feb. 11, 2019. Unfortunately, the 35,000 people who “like” or “follow” the WSU page and visited it during this historic strike saw a skewed version of the true public response to the strike because WSU — employing a policy allowing them to delete posts they viewed as “propaganda” or “offensive” — selectively censored speech that criticized the administration or supported the union.
Shortly after the strike began last year, FIRE became aware of reports that WSU was censoring comments on its Facebook page. In response, FIRE issued a public records request to WSU for particular posts relating to the AAUP-WSU strike. In reviewing WSU’s activities in the hundreds of pages of HTML source code that we received — here is one example, as well as an annotated version noting, in red, comments that were hidden — FIRE discovered that WSU often censored posts during the strike that were unfavorable to WSU.
For example, one comment left up on the Facebook page thanked WSU for its “neutral reporting” about the strike and explained that “most of [us] are uncomfortably caught in the middle.” The next reply was, ironically, hidden: “How can you call this neutral reporting when they hide comments that do not support their narrative?”
Perhaps most brazenly, on multiple occasions, WSU censored comments by Noeleen McIlvenna, who is now the President of the AAUP-WSU. Indeed, McIlvenna noticed WSU was actively hiding posts that appeared to support the union, commenting that “58 comments are shown out of 154. Tells you all you need to know about this social media team’s Admin propaganda.” WSU hid this comment as well:
WSU maintains social media guidelines on its Facebook page, stating that WSU may delete comments containing language that it deems to be, among other things, “propaganda,” “foul,” “trolling,” “offensive,” or “inflammatory.” FIRE has argued that these subjective restrictions on speech allow WSU to engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by deciding what kind of speech falls into these categories. As the Supreme Court recently explained, this type of censorship is unconstitutional because administrators must distinguish “between two opposed sets of ideas: those aligned with conventional moral standards and those hostile to them; those inducing societal nods of approval and those provoking offense and condemnation.”
Although WSU has not publicly given a reason for its censorship during the 2019 strike, the university’s behavior suggests that administrators felt WSU’s social media guidelines allowed them to hide comments critical of the administration. WSU’s actions illustrate the problem with allowing the government to censor speech that it subjectively deems “offensive,” “inflammatory,” or “propaganda.” Invariably, the government will censor speech that does not conform to its narrative. When this censorship happens on government-controlled Facebook pages, citizens that use Facebook to get information are left with a false impression about public opinion on critical issues. In our democracy, the government simply cannot be permitted to manipulate public perception by censoring comments that undermine its position.
Yesterday, FIRE wrote to WSU to bring public attention to WSU’s censorship and request that WSU rescind its unconstitutional social media guidelines. We ask that WSU accept responsibility for its censorship and take action to ensure that it will not happen again. This is also a warning to other public universities that have established social media forums with vague censorship policies: FIRE is prepared to take action to ensure that public debates are accurately represented on virtual forums, not manipulated by the university to favor the university.