The Free Speech Police: University Edition

On Inside Higher Ed today, a story about universities that seek to regulate social media use by student athletes. Some programs require athletes as a condition of participation to use monitoring software that alerts school officials when untoward thoughts become untoward posts and tweets. The lesson that university athletics departments apparently want to impart to their young charges is that freedom of expression might be a lovely concept, but not for you.

According to a report in the Courier-Journal, the University of Louisville uses software to flag over 400 words and phrases in posts and tweets, mostly having to do with substance use and sex. Most of the phrases flagged by the University of Kentucky’s version of the software are sports agents’ names. They do this monitoring with a product such as UDiligence, which searches social network profiles and posts (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube) for “for profanity, racial slurs, sexual connotations, and mentions of weapons, drugs and alcohol” as well as any custom keywords provided by a given school’s athletic department. Although the software doesn’t necessarily require athletes to hand over their social media account passwords, it does require that they grant access. If this seems like it might be just a wee bit of an infringement on student athletes’ freedom of expression, that’s because it is.

The recent development on this is movement in some states to bar colleges and universities from requiring that student athletes share access to their social media accounts as a condition of participation in sports. The latest is a bill passed last week by the California legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature. The measure defines social media content broadly to include “videos or still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations.” It prohibits any public or private educational institution from requiring that any student or prospective student…

(1) Disclose a user name or password for accessing personal social media.
(2) Access personal social media in the presence of the institution’s employee or representative.
(3) Divulge any personal social media information.

The California bill bars these schools from disciplining, suspending, expelling, or threatening same for refusing to comply with a request for social media account access or information. Sounds like an excellent approach.

Through a Freedom of Information request, the Courier-Journal reviewed hundreds of pages of flagged posts by athletes at the University of Kentucky, finding some tweets that clearly would reflect poorly on the school’s athletic program (I have some OxyContin. It will make you feel good. #drugs) but others caught in the inevitably clumsy trap of a imprecise keyword search (God is the only one who can heal me, help me & fight for me, flagged because of the word “fight”).

No one doubts that student athletes, like others kids that age, will say dumb things from time to time that the university might reasonably wish they hadn’t said. Social media broadcasts those lapses of judgment to a wider audience. But as Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center in Nashville points out,

Coaches who impose blanket bans or chill players’ speech by watching everything they post are not doing their athletes any favors. The handful of athletes who go on to professional sports will have to deal with social media throughout their careers, and they won’t learn anything if they’re not given any latitude. The best approach is to give student-athletes the education they need to enter the workplace and to become well-rounded citizens. That includes the smart and responsible use of social media. There’s no better place to learn those lessons than in America’s high schools and colleges.

Well said.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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