Questions of Conduct

Questions of Conduct

The popularity of social networking Web sites is shedding light on the increasing complexities of policing student behavior on campus while respecting their rights to privacy and free speech.

By Michael Lindenberger

When Jason Johnson, a student at the University of the Cumberlands in the eastern Kentucky hills, posted comments about his new boyfriend on his Myspace.com Web page earlier this year, he unintentionally sparked a controversy that quickly embroiled the college, the president of the state senate and Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Along the way, the dispute has shed light on the complications of policing student behavior on campus while respecting their rights to privacy and free speech. Those complications have only been compounded by the students’ nearly ubiquitous use of Internet social networks.

The Baptist-affiliated college, whose student handbook prohibits homosexual relationships, expelled Johnson, a 20-year-old theater arts major. Gay-rights organizations and some lawmakers responded by demanding that Gov. Fletcher veto $11 million in state funds for a new pharmacy program at the college.

Others, including the president of the state senate, defended the school’s right to set its own rules for student behavior, pointing out that Johnson knew the rules before he enrolled.

Fletcher left the funding intact, but called on the state attorney general to seek a legal opinion on whether the Kentucky constitution permits tax funds to be used for programs at private schools.

Many legal experts say private colleges have the right to exclude students who fail to abide by the college’s moral codes. But others say the Johnson drama underscores the changing landscape of student discipline, in which sites like Myspace and Facebook.com are playing an ever-increasing role.

The sites, which count their student users in the millions, are free and enable students and others to easily keep track of their friends — and their friends’ friends — through an interlocking system of  personal Web pages.

Students can also, however, use the sites to post embarrassing, objectionable or even incriminating photos and other content.
It’s a trend that is presenting new challenges for universities, education experts say.

Dr. Ruth Davison, interim director of the department of housing and residence life at the University of West Florida, says that when such photos are presented to university officials, it often means the university has to take action. 

“Students have a right to privacy, no matter who they are and whether they go to a public or a private school,” says Davison, a former student affairs consultant. “But what this young man was doing was not private. Myspace and Facebook are raising critical issues in how we deal with student behavior.”

In other words, she says, had Johnson simply been telling his friends he was gay, the school may never have been moved to act. However, putting it on the Internet for the world to see publicized it in a way that may have forced the university’s hand.

Davison says that, at most schools, administrators aren’t looking to police students’ moral choices or their relationships. Far more often, they are concerned about their health and safety. But in those areas, too, Myspace and Facebook are quickly altering the environment for student affairs professionals.

“I can’t speak for administrators everywhere, but from my experience they don’t want to know every detail of the private lives of their students,” Davison says. “But sometimes the sites contain evidence that raise critical issues of health and even life and death.”

For example, she says, it’s one thing if an administrator hears reports that there may be beer in a particular dorm room, but it’s a far more serious matter if the same dorm room appears in an Internet photo with a fridge full of booze.

The impact of the Internet goes well beyond such cases, Davison and other experts say. Students don’t realize that the photos and prank-filled videos they post to the Web will stay there long after their freshman silly season is over.

“We’re trying to help them understand that posting a photo on the Web can have long-term consequences,” says Dan Anderson, director of university relations at Elon University in North Carolina. “It can bounce around the Internet forever.”

Members of Elon’s baseball team learned that lesson the hard way in May. Last December, a student posted photos of what appeared to be hazing incidents on his Myspace page, school officials say. When the baseball coach learned of the photos, he immediately ordered they be taken down, and he disciplined the players involved. The school also drafted rules for student-athletes — who are already expected to adhere to more stringent codes of conduct  — about what they can and cannot post to the Internet.  

In May, the pictures resurfaced, this time on an Internet site
called BadJocks.com, and Elon officials found themselves fielding uncomfortable questions from the media.

Anderson says the school has since formed a faculty committee to look at developing a campuswide policy on the use of Internet sites like Myspace and Facebook, though he says the focus is on helping students understand the risks, not in censoring their postings.

Students need to realize that the video of their roommate mooning the rest of the dorm might have been funny freshman year, but it won’t look so wise when the roommate is a senior trying to land a job, Anderson says,“That online site may be viewed by friends and relatives and by potential employers and graduate schools,” he says. “So students need to know that this sort of posting can be part of the record reviewed by all of these sources in the future.”

The popularity of sites like Myspace has led to scrutiny far beyond the college campus. Lawmakers and law enforcement agencies have expressed concerns about sexual predators’ use of the sites.

A bill introduced last spring in the U.S. House of Representatives would bar the sites from computers in federally funded libraries and schools. Some states have considered similar bills.

In Connecticut, for instance, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal launched an investigation into Myspace after a 27-year-old man was arrested for allegedly assaulting a 13-year-old girl he had met through the site.

“[Myspace] has a moral — if not legal — responsibility to make changes that better shield children from sexual predators and inappropriate content,” Blumenthal said in a statement.

The company has since agreed to make blocking software more easily available to parents, according to Blumenthal’s office.

On campus, however, administrators see the sites as challenges primarily to their role as educators, rather than a problem for the campus police.

Trying to strike the right balance between enforcing student conduct norms and respecting students’ rights to privacy and free expression is always a delicate exercise — but one made more complicated by the Internet, says Anderson.

“I think that the whole Facebook and Myspace phenomenon is a thing that has really only surfaced in the past year,” he says. “We’re just starting to realize the issues, trying to come up with some sort of response to it.”

Universities, almost by definition, are uniquely challenged to respect students’ rights to free expression. Anderson says any rules regarding Web postings will have to be mindful of that.

“We don’t do any sort of canvassing of postings on these things,” Anderson says. “This whole thing with the baseball team has raised some issues about how to respond. But generally students can post what they want. We’re not trying to stifle any sort of expression.”

Across the United States, college responses to the social networking sites vary, but that’s not different from the varied approaches schools have always taken in response to more traditional questions of student conduct.

Officials at Pensacola Christian College, for instance, make no apologies for insisting on strict adherence to biblical scripture among students and faculty, according to David Gregory, the college’s director of institutional relations.

“We don’t comment on rules for students’ conduct,” he says, declining to speak specifically about rules for student use of the Internet. “But what I will tell you is that we do expect the Good Book to be our guideline. We look to the word of God, and that is what we hold our students to in terms of a code of conduct.”

Davison, the former student affairs consultant, says private schools like Pensacola and the University of the Cumberlands clearly have the right to set their codes of conduct as they choose. Still, she says, they may regret the rise of sites like Myspace if they find themselves confronting ever-mounting evidence of violations. 



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