No More Teachers' Dirty Looks Pageviews

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The Boston Phoenix has a big, broad wrap-up of the censorship and smackdowns growing out of the popularity of Facebook on college campuses.

The first few Facebook cases began trickling in to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where both authors of this article work) sometime in late 2005. This first wave typically involved students documenting themselves engaged in illegal behavior, like underage drinking or using illegal drugs. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising; after all, analysts estimate that Facebook is the Internet's largest host of user-submitted photos, with over 2.3 million being uploaded daily. That tops even dedicated photography sites like Flickr.com. It was perhaps inevitable that students would eventually upload pictures of themselves or others drinking or otherwise partying — and just as inevitable that administrators would eventually see these incriminating snapshots and take action.

The next wave of Facebook cases concerned censorship in its rawest form, updated for the Internet age. Typically these cases involved administrators, faculty, or student officials being criticized or satirized online. Instead of responding with more speech, the "victimized" party often moved for censorship, thus echoing the centuries-old lament of censors the world over: I believe in free speech and all, but I will not be mocked!

For example, at Syracuse University, students who created a Facebook group to make fun of a teaching assistant were expelled from the class and placed on "disciplinary reprimand." And two students at Cowley College in Kansas were banned from participating in theater-department activities after they complained about the theater department on a MySpace blog. Meanwhile, a student at University of Central Florida (UCF) was brought up on "personal abuse" harassment charges for calling a candidate for a student-government office a "Jerk and a Fool" on his Facebook account.

There's a large focus on how the devolving rights of students play into this, an issue I tackled way back in 2004.

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  1. I’d love to get all worked up over this, but FIRE doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to the “whole truth”.

  2. On further inspection, it seems that FIRE’s nonpartisan civil rights bona fides have improved over the past few years. I will have to retract my disparagement of them for the time being.

  3. Indeed, it’s much more sticky than that. If the students are not of legal age (say under 21 for alcohol purposes), the University must either not look, or go after the students if the University has any (official, or perhaps even unofficial) inkling that there is illegal activity being depicted. Else, the university will be liable, and will be sued.
    Overlawyered? Yes. Stupid? Yes. But those are the facts. Here at Wayne, to the best of my knowledge, we’re actively not looking, because we really, really don’t want to know. But if someone tells us, I suppose we’d have to do something, just CYA… And save us hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation costs, even if we were to win…

  4. students who created a Facebook group to make fun of a teaching assistant were expelled from the class and placed on “disciplinary reprimand.”

    As a grad student myself, I don’t see what’s so wrong about this. If you dislike a teaching assistant enough to start a facebook group against him, you probably shouldn’t be in that class. And universities often have a code of conduct that mandates showing respect to other members of the university.

    On the other hand, I do remember being outraged as an undergrad when the administration prevented my dorm from playing a song about one of the professors on our dorm speakers. I did, however at least know better than to post the lyrics to a similar song I wrote where the administration could get at it. Its just common sense to keep this sort of stuff out of view if it can be linked to you.

  5. The sad irony is that many from the generation that fought so hard for free speech in the ’60s and ’70s were the pioneers of speech codes and PC restrictions in the ’80s and ’90s and that we still see today.

    No irony at all. These “free speech” advocates were the same ones that shouted down speakers they didn’t like, burned ROTC buildings, occupied administrative offices, disrupted the recruiting efforts of “bad” compsnies, and actively shut down other programs they disagreed with. I can’t count the number of times these advocates of freedom sincerely assured me that I couldn’t possibly be “doing my own thing” unless I tuned in, turned on, and dropped out like they were doing.

  6. It’s only a violation of free speech rights if it’s the government doing the censoring or retaliating. Syracuse University can pretty much do what they please.

  7. I’m sure those ultra-liberal, anti-free speech professors are to blame.

  8. It’s only a violation of free speech rights if it’s the government doing the censoring or retaliating. Syracuse University can pretty much do what they please.
    Just because someone has the freedom to do something doesn’t mean that we should support it or not find it obnoxious, it only means that we don’t have the right to infringe that freedom.

  9. Meanwhile, a student at University of Central Florida (UCF) was brought up on “personal abuse” harassment charges for calling a candidate for a student-government office a “Jerk and a Fool” on his Facebook account.

    that’s my college!

  10. It’s only a violation of free speech rights if it’s the government doing the censoring or retaliating. Syracuse University can pretty much do what they please.

    Reason #235 for privatizing education.

  11. It’s not just administrators, facebook users are gleefully jumping on the bandwagon. There is now a “remove Palestine as a country” group as well as several groups petitioning facebook honcho Zuckerberg to shut the “delist Palestine” group down for being racist.

  12. It was perhaps inevitable that students would eventually upload pictures of themselves or others drinking or otherwise partying – and just as inevitable that administrators would eventually see these incriminating snapshots and take action.

    Exactly what individual rights are being violated here, to justify calling in FIRE? If you post pictures of yourself engaged in illegal activity to a public website, you don’t have much right to complain when you get in trouble.

  13. “It’s only a violation of free speech rights if it’s the government doing the censoring or retaliating. Syracuse University can pretty much do what they please.”

    “”Reason #235 for privatizing education.””

    Except that Syracuse University is a private university. I think that the backlash against college’s monitoring campus speech and behavior has become unfair. If you walk in to a restaurant and start belittling the waitress or other customers, out you go. Are there abuses, sure. But the examples given here seem reasonable.

  14. “More free speech” is something that the University would never allow any TA to employ in responding to his attackers. That being the case, it appears only fair that his attackers be punished. Allowing for one party to be maligned and mocked while he’s bound and gagged doesn’t seem like a fair fight. We live in a country where youth are idolized and teachers are viewed as either slaves or suspect pedophiles. Allowing these students to say as they wish would be just fine if teachers were allowed their rightful freedom of uncensored response.

    mnuez

  15. “if teachers were allowed their rightful freedom of uncensored response.”

    How about using Facebook?

  16. How about using Facebook?

    i’m sure a teacher or t/a using facebook to engage in a pissing match with students would be met with a less than kind reaction from administration.

    bottom line is these kids need to grow up stop bitching and moaning because they have to deal with people they don’t like. boo hoo. my professor is mean so i’m gonna complain about it on facebook. that is so weak.

  17. Downstater-Perhaps the profs need to grow up and realize that students bitch about teachers. That’s just the way it is.
    Acting on comments found on facebook or a similar site causes some people discomfort because they tend to see internet posts as being similar to informal conversations. Most folks would find it unreasonable to discipline a student for bitching about a professor in the student union, and some apply the same standard to these sites.
    Of course, a public internet posting is different, in that it’s about as public as anything gets.
    That said, I think the answer is for university staff to grow up, and take the bitching with a grain of salt.
    The drinking/illegal activities thing is different. While I would prefer the school to say, “We’re not going to help enforce a stupid law,” the liability concerns are real, and I can’t fault the schools for covering their asses.

  18. #6,

    Fair enough. There’s a lot of growing up needed all around.

    i just hope they enjoy it while they can. i don’t think similar public reviews about their bosses someday will go over as well.

  19. “Downstater-Perhaps the profs need to grow up and realize that students bitch about teachers.”

    for reals.

    though, tell you what: ratemyteacher.com really really pisses them off. even when they have good ratings (like my advisor; he’s got one of them little “hot” icons too).

    on the other hand, i’ve also found the comments to be fairly on point in many cases, so…(outside of the usual “makes us read a whole book” type stuff)

  20. When the your government, your school, and your job can restrict or penalize you for anything they want 24 hours a day regardless where, one really has to question if we have the stomach for liberty.

    I can somewhat understand the government doing this even though I don’t alway approve. Part of government is to make law. Schools and jobs i have to question

  21. It’s only a violation of free speech rights if it’s the government doing the censoring or retaliating. Syracuse University can pretty much do what they please.

    Reason #235 for privatizing education.

    Actually, isn’t that a reason not to privatize education? I’d rather attend a school that did not have the right to censor me.

  22. I can just hear my mother. “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

    The only thing sillier than getting pissed off when someone calls you an ass on the Internet is calling someone else an ass on the Internet. Life is too short.

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