The University of Missouri School of Law student government 'social media policy' controversy

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Several people have mailed about a "social media policy" that the University of Missouri School of Law student government promulgated. Elie Mystal (Above the Law Redline) blogged about this, with the headline, "University Releases Orwellian Social Media Policy, Hopes Students Are Too Dumb To Fight"; the Daily Caller (Blake Neff) has written about it as well.

The policy began ominously:

Carefully. Thoughtfully. Professionally. With Tiger spirit.

Before you post content to any social-media outlet affiliated, or reasonably possible to be associated with; yourself, the School of Law, the student organizations here at the school, the Missouri Bar Association, the American Bar Association, or any other legal association, and the University of Missouri, please take a moment to review our official guidelines.

If you are a member of the University of Missouri School of Law—Student Bar Association (i.e. a person enrolled in classes at the University of Missouri School of Law), then these rules apply to you. We expect everyone who participates in social media to understand and to follow these guidelines.

And it ended:

The Vice-President of the SBA will give a report on instances of possible non-compliance to the Board of Governors. It will be the Board of Governors that decide if a reported instance is, in fact, a violation of this policy—and the appropriate remedies to the situation.

By its terms, then, the policy threatened "appropriate remedies" for students' posts on their own social media accounts (since it applied "to any social-media outlet affiliated … with[] yourself"). "If you are [a University of Missouri law student] … then these rules apply to you." And the restrictions imposed in the policy were quite broad: No anonymous or pseudonymous comments. "​Avoid speaking about, or mentioning, others in your posts whenever you can. Seek that person's informed consent when needed." In bold, "[d]o not comment despairingly on others." (I suspect they meant "disparagingly," but first I read it literally, and envisioned posts that transgressed by saying, "I'm giving up on getting you to understand.") And there was a good deal more.

Indeed, the policy seemed so broad that I wondered what was up, and got in touch with the student government (as well as the Dean's Office, which the student government people patched in to the conversation). Based on that, here's my understanding of the situation:

1. The policy was apparently intended to do just two things: (a) set up rules about what can be posted on SBA's own Facebook page (with the "remedies" being the deletion of comments from that page), and (b) give nonbinding tips to students about good practices for their own posts in other places.

2. The "before you post" paragraph is hard to reconcile with that, and seems to suggest a broader agenda. Indeed, some students at Missouri were quite troubled by the policy as a result. The student government people told me that this paragraph was a mistake.

3. The SBA will be recasting the policy in light of this. Indeed, the SBA site said yesterday (though the page is now inaccessible), "Social Media Policy—Due to an extensive amount of Feedback from SBA members we have decided to remove the current policy pending revisions. Public comment will be forthcoming for SBA members to engage in discourse of the revised policy and guidelines." It also clarified the "appropriate remedies" sentence by saying that "At No point will there be any Academic Discipline imposed on students for a violation of SBA Policies."

4. The revised guidelines, which won't be finalized until after the SBA gets comments from students, will set up (a) rules for members of SBA's governing body using official SBA social media profiles, and binding only on those members using such profiles (though the rules will also be intended as nonbinding advice for others), and (b) a separate posting policy for what can be posted by others on SBA's Facebook page, and what can be taken down.

I look forward to seeing the revised rules, but it seems likely that they will indeed be quite limited, and that any plans for a broader policy—if such a broader policy was ever deliberately intended—have been scrapped. And law students will have learned a valuable lesson in drafting (and in vetting). Who said law school doesn't offer practical skills training?

Incidentally, as the Daily Caller article points out, the policy seemed to be based on an existing University of Missouri policy, but one limited to employees or contractors "participat[ing] in social media on behalf of MU" (emphasis added). Rules for what is said by employees while speaking on behalf of the university may well be a sensible idea—but precisely because they are limited to speech on behalf of the university. Adapting the rules to students speaking on their own behalf, as the original policy on its face did, was a mistake.