Free speech on Facebook doesn’t always come easy

Several universities across the country have violated student’s first amendment rights on the site.
May 06, 2009

Students set their Facebook privacy settings and clean up their profiles before job interviews, but at certain universities across the country, students face a new challenge — censorship.
In 2007, T. Hayden Barnes, a former student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, campaigned against the planned construction of two parking garages on the university’s campus.
Part of his opposition was a collage he posted on his Facebook page called the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage “ — named after and featuring the university’s then-President Ronald Zaccari.
The school viewed it as a threat, and the student was expelled.
Bob Corn-Revere , Barnes’ legal counsel, said Valdosta State’s Board of Regents reversed the decision for expulsion, but only after they filed a civil rights claim in federal court. They are still in litigation for damages.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education tries to maintain individual rights at colleges and universities in the United States.
The foundation’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy William Creeley said he has seen all kinds of cases involving student’s First Amendment rights on Facebook being denied by their universities, but most are not as drastic as Barnes’ case.
“Hayden’s case, in many ways, represents the worst of the worst in terms of severity of punishment and also the type of speech that was being punished,” Creeley said.
Corn-Revere agreed with Creeley, saying it was more egregious, given the environmental concerns Barnes was trying to raise.
Another case of a student’s free speech rights being challenged happened in January when a University of Chicago student was ordered by the dean to change the title of a Facebook photo album he made titled “[Name of ex-girlfriend] cheated on me, and you’re next!”
The student’s ex-girlfriend reported the album to the university and asked officials to act, which they did.
In September 2006, a student at the University of Central Florida started a Facebook group about a student government candidate calling him “a jerk and a fool.”
The candidate filed a complaint with the university that resulted in the group’s creator being charged with harassment through “personal abuse.”
The foundation intervened in this case, and it was reversed in March 2006.
University of Minnesota spokesman Daniel Wolter said nobody at the University is actively policing student’s Facebook pages.
Wolter said in the case of the Spring Jam Riot, if someone were to come forward with a photo from Facebook that implicated someone, the University would take it into account.
Wolter said the University believes very strongly in free speech, and for any disciplinary actions to take place it would have to be in keeping with the school’s code of conduct.
Corn-Revere says that just because student’s online information is widely accessible to administrators, it does not diminish a student’s First Amendment rights.
“It’s increasingly common for any public expression, and this includes expression on the Internet, to be used as a reason to discipline students,” Corn-Revere said.
Creeley said there are things on social networking sites that a university could legitimately punish a student for, but they would be things of the criminal nature, such as pictures of students smoking marijuana in their dorm room.
Creeley said despite Facebook privacy settings, it is relatively easy for administrators to gain access to material.
He said there are software programs and third-party vendors that market to universities to aid them in keeping an eye on the activities of students.
Creeley said university administrators are not used to having this level of access to the emotional lives of their students.
“We think that university administrators should take a decidedly hands-off approach to the vast majority of student speech that goes on on Facebook,” Creeley said. “Students will be students, and they will talk to each other in ways that baffle and confound university administrators.”
Even though he was reinstated, Barnes said the experience was so traumatizing for him and he did not feel safe returning to the university because other administrators stood by and let the abuse from the president happen.
Barnes will graduate from Kennesaw State University in Georgia with a degree in anthropology at the end of the summer.
Creeley said the speech in the Barnes case is the kind of core political expression that the First Amendment was designed to protect.
He said social networking sites like Facebook should be treated like everything else in this country with regards to the First Amendment.
“The great thing about the First Amendment is that it’s a continually evolving legal standard that has managed to master every new medium; every new technological advance in communications throughout the past 220-odd years,” Creeley said.

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