Facebook and the First Amendment

by Elena Rozwadowski

When Johns Hopkins University student Justin Park invited his Facebook friends to his “Halloween in the Hood” party last October, he didn’t expect to be temporarily booted from classes for the next year.

But when the university’s director of greek affairs saw the invitation, he took action that eventually led to Park’s one-year suspension,300 hours of community service and a dozen book reports.

This scenario is a growing one. With more than 18 million registered Facebook users and 75 million MySpace profiles, more and more employers and universities use these social networking sites to find out more about college students.

At the University, 85 percent of students have visited social networking sites and 73 percent are members, according to a recent Minnesota Daily survey.

Those same students were split on the issues of employer and university monitoring of their profiles, and nearly equal numbers of students polled said they found this to be a major, moderate, minor or no violation of privacy.

While students might be split on the issue, freedom of speech advocates see these activities as a problem.

Freedom of speech: a growing concern

Although Park’s punishment was ultimately reduced on appeal last month, representatives from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who helped Park in this case, said they are still disappointed with the outcome.

FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Samantha Harris said any punishment at all is inappropriate.

“The speech was unquestionably protected,” Harris said.

She said students report more incidents like that at Johns Hopkins each week.

“This is a growing problem,” Harris said. “Universities are trying to step in and monitor these sites when they shouldn’t be.”

She said it would be a different scenario if the photos captured illegal activities, such as minors drinking or students destroying university property. Then, she said, students could be fairly punished for breaking school policy or the law.

But beyond the legal question, Harris said Johns Hopkins’ actions were inappropriate.

“A university should not be monitoring these sites and looking for this type of information,” she said. “Where’s the line?”

Unmonitored, but not unchecked

University spokesman Dan Wolter said the University does not “monitor, police (or) control” students’ online activity, but that doesn’t mean they are immune to punishment for what they post.

For example, if a student is seen drinking in or destroying a dorm room, a community assistant can report the student to Housing and Residential Life.

In fact, CAs are warned about the possible consequences of these sites and trained to be more responsible about the information they post, said Assistant Director of Residential Life Susan Stubblefield.

“We’re letting students know that their individual decisions could have consequences,” Stubblefield said. “There’s not enough time in the day to monitor every single profile, but if a CA sees something, they are required to report it.”

Housing is not the only place at the University where students are warned about the possible consequences of their online lives.

At a recent meeting, the athletics department cautioned student athletes about posting controversial or even illegal material on their online profiles, Intercollegiate Athletics Program Director Kyle Coughlin said.

“With the higher profile sports, major media outlets are looking at students’ profiles,” Coughlin said. “That is the pitfall of these things.”

Coughlin said the department also warns students that future employers might be looking online for more information about them.

Other colleges outright banned student athletes from having online profiles, such as Kent State University, although that order was eventually reversed.

“We’re not preventing them from doing this,” Coughlin said. “But, if we see something that could reflect badly on the athletic department, we have the right to address it.”

Facebook bans aren’t exclusive to athletics. In 2005, the University of New Mexico put a campus-wide ban on the site, which was also eventually lifted.

The biggest question schools seem to wrestle with is when they have the right to censor students’ online activities based on their own policies.

“When it comes to freedom of speech,” Harris said, “the answer is almost always never.”