ORLANDO, Fla., March 6, 2006—First Amendment rights on the Internet were recently vindicated at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Until the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) intervened, a UCF student was set to be punished on harassment charges for calling a student government candidate “a jerk and a fool” on the popular college website Facebook.com.
“It’s deeply troubling that a student anywhere in America could face trouble for such mild statements on a website,” remarked FIRE Interim President Greg Lukianoff. “However, we are pleased that UCF seems to have come to its senses.”
Last September, UCF undergraduate Matthew Walston created a group on the popular Facebook.com website entitled “Victor Perez is a Jerk and a Fool.” At the time, Perez, a Student Senate candidate, filed a complaint with UCF objecting to the existence of Walston’s group. In October, the university notified Walston that he was charged with harassment through “personal abuse” for creating the group. Walston contacted FIRE, which wrote UCF on January 31, explaining that the charge “not only trivializes actual harassment by equating it with language that is simply opinionated, but also chills expression on UCF’s campus and ignores constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech.”
UCF responded on February 3, strangely denying that Walston was on trial for the very statement to which Perez’s complaint referred. Nevertheless, on February 6, Walston attended a disciplinary hearing before a university judicial board that found that he was “not in violation” of the “personal abuse” policy in the UCF student code of conduct.
“This case is an excellent demonstration of the perils of vague and overbroad speech codes on college campuses,” stated Lukianoff. “By enforcing 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. UCF must have better things to do than waste its time prosecuting students for ‘offenses’ that are not only unconstitutional but trivial.”
Facebook.com is a very popular website that covers many college and university campuses. The site allows anyone with an e-mail address from one of the campuses covered to join. Any member can form a group around common interests or ideas. For instance, along with Walston’s group, there was also a group entitled “I Love Victor Perez.” FIRE is experiencing an increase in the number of cases submitted that involve Facebook.com.
“Facebook.com presents a worrisome opportunity for administrations to keep track of the ‘offensive speech’ of their students as 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,” Lukianoff noted. “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 a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Central Florida can be viewed at thefire.org/ucf.
Greg Lukianoff, Interim President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
John C. Hitt, President, University of Central Florida: 407-823-1823; email@example.com