February 3, 2009

Student questions regulations after Facebook censorship

What one student sees as a violation of his right to free speech, University administrators and others see as a appropriate application of the student code of conduct. The question was raised after fourth-year Andrew Thompson created a photo album on his Facebook profile that, according to Dean of Students Susan Art, constituted the disrespectful treatment of another fourth-year U of C student on the Internet.

Thompson created the photo album in late January, entitled “[Omitted name] cheated on me, and you’re next!” The album, which could be viewed by any member of the U of C community, included some photos of his ex-girlfriend and comments by his friends criticizing her.

After Art requested in an e-mail that he remove the woman’s name from the album, Thompson changed it, but responded by asking if Art and the University had the authority to control his behavior on the Internet.

Even if Art’s actions were within the University’s regulations, Thompson questioned the appropriateness of rules that, in his view, restrict students’ speech on the Internet.

“I don’t think it’s very fair for Susan Art to be able to dictate what is posted on Facebook,” he said. “Can she claim that the code of conduct extends to the Internet? How can she block my speech,when what I stated was factual?”

Art cited the Student Manual, which states that on- or off-campus behavior threatening or violating a “commitment to personal and academic integrity” may necessitate action under the University’s disciplinary system. In her reply to Thompson, Art said, “I take this to fall under ‘any conduct, on or off campus.’”

The manual also states that as a general rule, the University does not “intervene to enforce social standards of civility.” To warrant an intervention, according to the manual, negative conduct must “compromise that individual’s ability to function within the University setting” or continue after an individual has asked that it stop.

Thompson’s ex said that she had told Thompson through several forms of communication to take down the page before approaching Art.

Tracy Weiner, a lecturer in the College who teaches a course on censorship, said that it appears the case hinges on the issue of harassment. “What would really make the difference is whether or not his speech was harassing,” she said.

Art said in an e-mail interview that asking Thompson into her office would have been the next course of action had he not complied.

“Though she didn’t state explicitly that she would punish me,” he said, “it seemed obvious she would have if I didn’t obey her immediately.”

Vice President and Chief Information Officer Gregory Jackson, who oversees NSIT, said a wide range of online issues can invoke disciplinary measures from the University.

“When discipline cases involve I.T., the issues have most commonly been copyright infringement, use of University facilities for private commercial gain, plagiarism, cheating, or harassment,” he said.

The issue of student Internet speech arose earlier this year when third-year College Council Representative Jarrod Wolf responded to complaints about the anonymous gossip website Juicy Campus by proposing that Student Government take action against the site. In this case, Wolf said the University’s intervention with Thompson was justified.

“If the dean felt that this really was harassment, she has every right to intervene,” Wolf said. “This is a case that shows how the University’s harassment policy works. I don’t think this was a breach of freedom of speech.”

“The University of Chicago Facebook community is a virtual representation of our campus and as such, should be subject to the same harassment rules that govern our University,” Wolf said.