University’s social media crackdown draws major online backlash

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.

Many schools have policies aimed at curbing cyber bullying, but most of those apply only to school-owned servers and equipment, said Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

WKU has not yet drafted any language for the handbook or set possible punishments for violators, a school spokesperson said.

The school already has vague rules against “accessible communications deemed inappropriate.”

Cracking down on accounts that poke fun at the university is sure to draw unwanted attention, said Adam Kissel, vice president of programs for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“I don’t know if it’s even possible to harass an institution,” he said. “If you disrupt them with a bomb threat, that’s unprotected speech, but if you make fun of [the school] in an obviously satirical way, that would certainly be constitutionally protected speech.”

Susan Ragland, web content editor at Tarrant County College in Texas, said college officials nationwide have made a concerted effort to weed negative comments out of their schools’ social media “universe,” and for good reason: Fake Twitter accounts—even if they are clearly satirical—can gain momentum across social media platforms.

“The truth is that the conversations are happening, whether online or in person,” Ragland said. “One drawback to the online phenomenon of satirical Twitter accounts or college meme sites is that it could potentially lead to something greater, whereas some folks may not be as harsh in person with their comments, once the ice is broken to begin the negative comments, others may join in, just for the fun.”

That’s precisely what happened one week after the WKU student newspaper first reported on the school’s Twitter policies.

Various tweets that included the WKU hashtag urged the campus to “use social networking to better the university, not control the students” and charging that “chilling speech should be anathema to any public university.”

Another tweeter told the university that its new social media policies would “end up discouraging potential journalism students.”

James Larken Smith, a local Texas radio show host, tweeted Feb. 27 that “Western Kentucky University [should] rename itself Censor Ship University.”

Violators of a new rule may face sensitivity training, but the idea is not to limit speech among students, said Stacey Biggs, WKU’s chief marketing officer.

“The point is not to tell them what they can or can’t say, or what they can or can’t say about WKU,” she said.

Still, critics have cried foul. The campus newspaper recently wrote a lengthy article under the headline “WKU trying to pull strings on social media.” And the parody Twitter account—temporarily shut down because it wasn’t clearly labeled as a parody—recently tweeted, “Campus police department has been renamed to twitter patrol.”

Student criticism prompted an official response that appeared recently in the campus newspaper. Biggs wrote that the intent is not to censor students but said the university “has to offer some amount of protection to its students.” School officials have vigilantly searched for fake accounts filled with inflammatory comments, though Biggs said the school tries to have accounts taken down only if they use the university’s name or logo and don’t clearly state that they are parodies. In her commentary, she said such efforts are aimed at protecting the school’s reputation and brand.

Other schools do remind students that posts can reflect poorly on them in the eyes of a prospective employer, for instance. Some, such as the University of Kentucky in Lexington, limit that to a set of recommended “best practices.”

“You don’t really regulate conversations in a coffee house, for example,” said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. “The same principles apply here.”

UK’s existing campus policies applying to legal and ethical conduct extend to communications, including social media, he said.

At WKU, Ransdell weighed in on social networking in a Feb. 15 message on Facebook. He warned about the lasting consequences for irresponsible posts.

“We, at WKU, have become particularly conscious lately of some who are misusing social media and using some poor judgment,” Ransdell wrote. “So my message here is ‘Be smart.’ Use social media thoughtfully; always remember what you send is permanent and can be viewed years from now. Employers do their homework. They can and will track ways in which prospective employees have used social media. We, at WKU, track such things as well.”

Such efforts amount to attempts to “stop students from offending the government-paid administrators,” said Goldstein, the attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center.

“Any institution that invests substantial effort into shutting down obvious parody accounts richly deserves to be parodied, because any institution with a good reputation for doing the right thing most of the time isn’t worried that obviously silly statements might be confused with its genuine policy,” he said.

Goldstein said he’s never seen a college president get to personally involved in the give-and-take in social media.

“I guess it’s good that he’s paying attention, but I wonder if this is really the best use of his time,” Goldstein said.

The social media backlash faced by WKU administrators this week demonstrates the risks of iron-fisted Twitter and Facebook policies in higher education, Kissel said.

“Censorship very often backfires on those who censor,” he said.

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