Should universities censor students on social media?

I remember it very well. It was on a Sunday, over 6 years ago, I discovered a page on Facebook created by 3 of my students against our faculty, stating they were fed up with the high demands. On Monday I spoke with one of the students and he admitted it was a joke they conceived after a night out on Thursday. The thing was, the over 600 students and alumni who had liked their page didn’t know it was a joke, they took it very serious.

This brings me to a new paper by John Rowe on the ethical problems universities face trying to protect their staff, students, and reputation. Huge increases in the use of social media by students have posed difficult ethical questions for Universities. Comments posted on sites such as Facebook are often ‘stream of consciousness’ thoughts, expressed with little regard to their potential impact. Sometimes, they constitute serious transgressions, including racism, homophobia, violent threats and admissions of plagiarism, which make my 3 students look very mild.  Do Universities have a duty of care to intervene for staff and student well-being?  Should freedom of speech be upheld?

From the press release:

John Rowe’s latest research offers a concise summary of the ethical problems faced by universities trying to protect their staff, students, and reputation. Rowe also proposes a practical method for categorising online comments about teachers, students, classes, and institutions.

Students and teachers were shown a number of social media posts of varying degrees of offensiveness. These were real posts from real university-related student-run sites:

“Did u c that toby did the assignment already? He said he’d do mine as well if I want! Score!”

“That Chinese chick in our group is so lame. She is just freeloading on us cos she can’t speak English. Stupid b****.”

“I wish Gina would die!! Aaaargh! I think I might kill her tomorrow!”

They were asked to rank them from 1-4 (trivial to serious) and write what they thought the university should do about each.

There was a wide consensus that the most serious comments were about cheating and plagiarism and those that threatened violence, and/or were racist, sexist, and/or homophobic.

However, ‘no’ remained the definite answer when asked whether universities should monitor student-run sites.

Comments of this nature can seriously threaten the well-being of students and staff at university. So what can be done to protect them, while maintaining freedom of speech?

I do think that the framework Rowe suggests can be handy for discussing this topic:

Table 1. Rating scale.

Level Category Action to be taken Description
1 Trivial Take no action These are relatively trivial comments that should not be reacted to by universities. In fact, intervening in these cases is likely to be counterproductive.
2 Minor Optional – possibly contact student to discuss comment These are comments that are not particularly offensive but display a lack of respect or judgement. There is no imperative to contact the student regarding the comment; however, a university could choose to do so, for example, to suggest a more appropriate or constructive way of making that comment or criticism. The comment is of such a nature that it would not be appropriate to issue a warning or admonishment.
3 Moderate Issue a warning These types of comments warrant contact being made with the student. Comments in this category will generally display a distinct lack of respect and judgement and should be addressed via provision of advice and information and usually a warning regarding appropriate behaviour. These types of comments are not considered sufficiently serious that more severe penalties would be contemplated.
4 Serious Consider more formal disciplinary action These types of comments warrant immediate contact being made with the student. Comments in this category would generally be those that break a law (physical threats, racial vilification, sexist or other discriminatory comments), constitute bullying, or are admissions/offers to engage in inappropriate behaviour in respect of academic matters (e.g., cheating, plagiarism, collusion). Generally a warning would not be considered sufficient in these cases and formal disciplinary action against the student would normally be considered. A formal admonishment would generally be the minimum action and even more severe penalties such as exclusion or expulsion might be considered warranted.

The surveys in the paper make clear that students, but even the teachers, do think the university cannot intervene on social mediasites. From the conclusion:

“In some cases, it may be considered appropriate to contact the student to remind them of their obligations to act with respect to others (most universities have a student charter or code of conduct that requires students to show respect and act constructively in the learning environment). In other cases, it may be appropriate to contact the student, not overtly to caution them, but to suggest that there are better ways to provide feedback that will have a higher chance of being acted on and result in a productive outcome for students. However, universities need to be careful not to overstep the mark and display too much sensitivity to student criticism. If action is taken, universities run the risk that this will drive these types of comments from the official site to non-university student-run sites, diluting the value of the feedback provided through formal mechanisms.”

Abstract of the paper (free access):

The phenomenal growth in the use of social media in the past 10 years has dramatically and irreversibly changed the way individuals communicate and interact with one another. While there are undoubtedly many positives arising out of the use of social media, irresponsible or inappropriate use can have significant negative consequences. In the university setting, comments posted on widely accessible forums such as Facebook, and seen by other students or staff, can damage reputations, create personal distress and compromise academic integrity. So how should universities deal with this problem? This article describes the findings of a research project undertaken in 2011 to address this question. Given that many students would regard their Facebook pages and Facebook groups as their own private space, one of the key goals of the project was to establish appropriate limits for university interference in these matters. Another was to develop a categorisation model for dealing with inappropriate or irresponsible comments that have been detected or reported.


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