- Colleges block over 1,800 unique terms on their social media pages
- Secret filters automatically remove comments mentioning political figures, corporate partners, sports teams, faculty members, and even an emoji
- 87% of colleges block users on Facebook or Twitter
- Administrators abuse social platform tools to quietly censor posts and users — transforming their pages from public forums into vehicles for positive publicity
PHILADELPHIA, April 22, 2020 — The majority of top public colleges and universities use a blacklist of secret words, created by Facebook, to automatically censor comments on university social media pages, according to a new survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. As campuses sit empty and much of student life moves online, this censorship has an amplified importance.
Colleges also compile custom lists collectively banning more than 1,800 words and phrases: from profanities to posts referencing matters of local and national concern, campus controversies, criticism of colleges’ corporate partners or sports teams, and even the weather. The findings, gleaned from public records from nearly 200 top institutions, show that public universities — bound by the First Amendment — are impermissibly censoring public dialogue.
“There’s no social media exception to the First Amendment,” said Adam Steinbaugh, author of the FIRE report. “Government actors cannot sanitize public discourse — whether it’s President Trump blocking Twitter critics or American colleges filtering dissent on their social media accounts. By selectively eliminating particular viewpoints, universities are violating the First Amendment.”
FIRE’s report, “No Comment: Public Universities’ Social Media Use and the First Amendment,” utilized public records requests sent to more than 200 public colleges and universities in 47 states and the District of Columbia. The records from the 198 responding institutions reveal that almost half of the surveyed institutions — 49% — use Facebook’s “strong” profanity filter, and 28% use the “medium” filter to prohibit a list of words not disclosed to the public.
Additionally, 3 in 10 colleges or universities use a custom blacklist, collectively censoring 1,825 unique words and phrases. The lists provide a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at what institutions censor. Consider:
- The University of Kentucky blocks the words “birds,” “chicken,” “chickens,” and “filthy,” presumably to censor criticism of Aramark, the company that provides food for the university under a $250 million contract.
- A number of institutions, including Portland State University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Arizona, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, blocked the names of political candidates, such as “Trump,” “Bernie,” or “Hillary.”
- During protests over the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill blocked posts containing the phrase “Silent Sam,” as well as mentions of “Nazis.”
- Texas A&M University blocks references to the “hook em” horn gesture of their University of Texas at Austin rivals, the Longhorns. Oklahoma State University blocks mentions of its rival football team, including the phrases “boomer sooner” (OU’s fight song), “university of oklahoma,” and “sooners.”
- Not to be outdone by its rival, the University of Oklahoma blocks an emoji.
- Texas A&M blocked terms “peta” and “abuse” to frustrate criticism by animal rights activists, including People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, over research conducted on dogs. Santa Monica College likewise bars “cats,” “dissecting,” “torture,” and “killing” following a PETA campaign criticizing cat dissection in an anatomy course.
- Clemson University blocked mentions of Harambe, a gorilla featured in many internet posts, after a controversy in which it denied censoring Harambe memes.
- The University of Arizona automatically removes posts containing the word “rape” or the name of a preacher known for holding signs reading, “You Deserve Rape.” This restriction presumably removes complaints about the preacher.
- Suffolk County Community College (NY) blocks posts concerning inclement weather, including terms that demonstrate that the purpose is to inhibit criticism, barring the words “blizzard,” “snow,” “dangerous,” “slip,” “scared,” “irresponsible,” “tragedy,” and “accident.” The college also blocks “apologize,” “resign,” and “disgrace.”
Facebook’s automated content filters allow state institutions to automatically “hide” users’ comments if they contain words included on either Facebook’s undisclosed list of banned words or their own customized list. These tools enable public colleges and other government actors to quietly remove critical posts, transforming their Facebook pages from public forums into vehicles for positive publicity.
Yet courts across the country have held government actors’ social media sites, including those on Facebook and Twitter, to be subject to the First Amendment, which requires — at the very least — that restrictions not be based on viewpoint, and that any regulations be reasonable in light of the purpose of the forum. The most prominent of these decisions is a successful challenge to President Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account. FIRE found that 87% of colleges blocked particular users on Facebook or Twitter.
- The University of Kansas blocks “Boycott Koch Industries,” a Facebook account referencing America’s second-largest privately-held company, which is based in Kansas and is a major donor to the university.
- Georgia State University blocked a “Georgia for Bernie” Twitter account.
- The University of New Hampshire blocked a Twitter account belonging to “UNH Students for Gary Johnson,” a Libertarian Party presidential candidate.
- Mississippi State University blocks “Legalize Marijuana in Mississippi.”
- The University of Utah blocks animal rights activists, including PETA.
- The University of Alaska Anchorage blocked an “Alaskans4Trump” account.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has defended Facebook’s policies, and in October called for a new generation to “continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness.” FIRE sent a letter with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Zuckerberg today, outlining recommendations to restore free expression on the platform.
“State universities are preemptively censoring large swaths of protected speech and altering the public discourse with just a few clicks of the mouse — and Facebook gives them all the tools they need to do it,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “While social media makes it possible to amplify opinions, it also makes it easier than ever for government actors to silence Americans.”
FIRE’s suggestions to Facebook include releasing the contents of the secret blacklist, limiting the tools available to government accounts, and alerting users when their comment has been filtered on a government actor’s page.
“Around the country, our public institutions are quietly determining which specific words can be part of the public dialogue,” said Steinbaugh. “FIRE has spent years fighting this fight on campus, and protecting freedom of expression online is all the more important as the coronavirus pandemic drives our communities online.”
FIRE’s survey examines the state of social media in higher education since October 2018. We encourage the public to submit open records requests to public institutions to see how this censorship is evolving today.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Daniel Burnett, Assistant Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org