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Students need to use caution on social media

By Kristina Bui
February 9, 2011
Arizona Daily Wildcat

You know that photo of you, bleary-eyed and smiley, red plastic cup in hand? You know the one. You look like a hot, drunk mess, your friend keeps tagging you in it, it’s on Facebook for the whole Internet to see? That one. I bet you’d be having words with your tag-happy little pal if the UA administration were keeping tabs on your profile.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, much of the discussion at the National Conference on Law and Higher Education centered around issues presented by Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. These issues have colleges wondering if there is a need to police the Internet in order to monitor what their students and faculty members are doing or posting online.

In May 2006, Stacey Snyder was a student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, just days away from her graduation at the time. Then the university denied her a teaching degree. The university claimed it was because a photo on her MySpace profile. Remember, it was 2006 and people still used MySpace.

The photo in question was captioned “Drunken Pirate” and featured Snyder in a pirate hat and drinking from a red plastic cup. According to the university, it promoted underage drinking. Snyder was 25 years old then, and working as a student teacher at a high school. She maintained the photo was taken off campus and after school hours at a costume party.

Snyder sued Millersville University for refusing her a degree, citing it as a violation of her right to free speech. She eventually earned an English degree instead. A federal judge ruled against her in 2008. According to The Washington Post, university officials said the case was not an issue of First Amendment rights, but of performance. The photo, they said, was just one example of many that Snyder did not deserve a degree in education.

Some colleges have codes of conduct and policies pertaining specifically to social media. Concordia University expects students to “assume the responsibility for the content posted and are subject to sanctions” if that content violates Concordia’s conduct code.

These policies also sometimes attempt to address online harassment, especially in response to cases like Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who killed himself after his roommate secretly recorded him with another man on a webcam. The problem is defining what online bullying is, and where to draw the line between offensive speech and speech that legitimately interferes with someone else’s education.

Cases like Snyder’s or Clementi’s, and discussions like the one at the National Conference on Law and Higher Education, ask: How should a university babysit what its students and employees post on the Internet? Should there be any obligation to do so?

I don’t actually know how much of a reach a social media policy should have. While universities wrestle with the wording of policies that people won’t read anyway, students ought to take responsibility on an individual basis, of their own accord. You’ve had a few too many if you think an employer should be able to find your record for tequila shots via Google.

There are existing precautions for making sure anything that the university, or a future employer, could deem inappropriate and against any code of conduct is hidden. Set your profile to private. Google yourself. If you can still find your Facebook, be more private. The same applies to every hash tag you use on Twitter, each photo you reblog on Tumblr, everything.

But more importantly, remember that privacy settings only go so far. The fact that university administrations are beginning to wonder if they are obligated to include social media clauses in their student and faculty conduct policies should be an embarrassment to all of us. Only the most naive people expect you to avoid all college kid shenanigans. But everyone should expect you to keep them offline.

For the sake of making sure you don’t lose your degree because you had to be a drunken pirate, think before you post.
— Kristina Bui is the opinions editor of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.