University’s social media crackdown draws major online backlash

From staff and wire reports
February 27th, 2012

A host of negative tweets targeted WKU Feb. 27.

A Kentucky university is aggressively fighting parody and criticism of school officials on Twitter and other social media sites, which students and free-speech advocates say is a constitutionally questionable attempt to silence any negative comments.

Western Kentucky University’s president has used Facebook to lecture students about social networking etiquette, and officials persuaded Twitter to briefly shut down a parody account dripping with sarcasm and criticism with posts marked “#wku.”

Officials deny charges of censorship, but observers say the school appears to have immersed itself in the policing of social media deeper than many others around the country.

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WKU junior Autum Calloway, a psychology major from Russellville, Ky., said she will tweet about things going on around campus. But she chooses her words carefully.

“I don’t ever criticize the school on Twitter because I don’t want an ordeal made,” she said, noting friends have been scolded by officials for postings deemed to be poor representations of the school.

To be sure, it’s common for universities to monitor cyber-chatter. But WKU president Gary Ransdell has jumped into the fray himself, taking to Facebook to scold students about inappropriate posts. And officials say they’re considering a new handbook policy that would be aimed at preventing online harassment.

Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group based in San Francisco, sees it as an attempt by WKU to immerse itself into the flow of ideas on Twitter and Facebook. Students may wind up choosing their words more carefully—like Calloway—to avoid running afoul of the rules.

“If you don’t know whether what you’re going to say is going to get you in trouble, you’re better off just not saying it and not getting in trouble,” he said. “And there you have it right there, speech is chilled.”

Any new policy also raises the question of whether a school could limit what students post when they’re off campus and not using school equipment.

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