09/09/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Social Media Freedom on Campus in an Age of Marketing

Social media campus policies frequently turn concerns of academic administrators into free speech restrictions. Even at public universities -- from the University of Kansas (KU) to Northern Illinois University (NIU) -- such policies create boundaries and a chill on the marketplace of expression.

NIU's Office of University Marketing received cabinet approval of a social media policy in 2011 that emphasized promoting "community through engagement and coordination across multiple social media platforms."


From a marketing perspective, NIU branding through Facebook and other pages makes sense. However, the desire to control what students, faculty and staff do on social media sites should not be left to the marketers. NIU students using dorm wifi recently were met with a "Web Page Access Warning" based upon their web browsing of some Wikipedia pages or controversial sites, such as the Westboro Baptist Church. The warning directs students to the NIU Acceptable Use Policy and clearly creates a chilling effect on free flow of political information.

Yet, political speech is at the core of First Amendment freedom in the United States. Our understanding of the law based upon U.S. Supreme Court decisions 50 years ago is that we treasure "robust" and sometimes rough debate on public issues in the cultivation of democratic values.

As we saw in the case of a KU public relations professor last year, the university policy line of reasoning places faculty at risk when a single tweet is view as offensive by a few vocal community members with access to university administrators and appointed or elected board members. Likewise, the recent University of Illinois revocation of a tenured hiring offer to a professor active in social media suggests a form of academic blacklisting related to Twitter behavior.

Instead of the U.S. as a beacon for academic freedom, these restrictive university policies send a message to the world that it may be okay to restrict speech rather than tolerate and debate it. No wonder the London School of Economics and Political Science's Deborah Lupton found that although academics see value in social media communication, survey results indicated that they fear mixing personal and professional:

Some respondents worried about jeopardizing their career through careless use of social media. They were cautious about the content of their posts. For example a British academic wrote that: "Sometimes forthright expression of views could cause issues for employers and affect my reputation. Use has to carefully balance professionalism and discretion with academic freedom and freedom of speech."

Of course, academics should exercise this care in all forms of communication, but it is not up to their institution and policy-makers to mandate communication behavior. The NIU policy, for example, urged users to "clarify you are not an authorized representative," and suggested a disclaimer for all sites. NIU "reserves the right to review for compliance purposes any site or activity brought to its attention as potentially violating the guidelines." The use policies go further by suggesting that NIU - rather than a court - may judge defamation or other media content and restrict it: "Accessing material that, in NIU's evaluation, is obscene, defamatory, or constitutes a threat, including pornographic material."

Internet pioneers fought free speech battles in the 1990s that culminated with a very favorable Supreme Court decision treating websites as publishing. Much like newspapers, the government may not restrict website editorial decision-making. Advocates again must fight for full First Amendment rights within social media.