Towson University’s resurgent football season ended when wide receiver Ryan Spadola had 13 catches—a Johnny Unitas Stadium record—to help Lehigh beat the Tigers in the playoffs in December.
The next week, Spadola didn’t even play. He’d been suspended by Lehigh because he used a racial slur in a message he sent out on Twitter prior to the Towson game.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose, having seen how Twitter could hurt a team, decided to spend the first few weeks of the offseason monitoring his players’ use of the social media tool and quickly decided to ban it until he felt his players had been properly educated on using it.
At about the same time that Ambrose came to his decision, though, a group of Maryland legislators introduced a bill that would prevent colleges and universities from monitoring students’ social media activities.
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Senate bill 434, presented a few weeks ago, would make it illegal for schools to force students to make their tweets public, or to require them to “friend” coaches or other officials on Facebook. A hearing on the bill, which has bipartisan support, is scheduled for Feb. 29.
Coaches and athletics officials who carefully monitor what players say to reporters have struggled to react to new technology allowing athletes unfiltered communication with the public. As they try to protect the reputation of their institutions—and in some cases, avoid NCAA violations—they’re drawing attention from lawyers worried about defending the First and Fourth Amendments.
Bradley Shear, a Bethesda, Md.-based lawyer and social media expert, said many schools have gone too far.
Their requests that students make information public or install software meant to monitor their actions is not only a breach of free speech and privacy but also sets a dangerous legal precedent for the schools, Shear said.
“Obviously, this is not the right thing to do for the students,” he said. “But what schools don’t understand is the sort of liability they are taking on by doing this.”