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Think you can’t be kicked off campus for a tweet? Or that messages sent through your school email aren’t anyone’s business but your own? As many students are finding out, the web offers as many challenges to their free speech and privacy in college as it does opportunities to connect.
The same resources that allow students to connect, learn, and share with others also allow their actions to be tracked and monitored, often by colleges themselves who may limit how students can use certain sites, what they can say, and may even be able to access and search students communications sent through their networks. Colleges have begun to more closely monitor how students use their internal networks and social media alike, resulting in some major confrontations between students and administrators, some of which have even made national news.
While Millennials have consistently been branded as not caring about privacy in the online sphere, research shows quite the opposite. Young people, college students included, care just as much about protecting personal information online as their older counterparts, even more so when it comes to social networks. Yet it’s not always clear how to best protect this privacy, when it’s at risk, and what laws protect privacy rights. The following resource explores the increasingly complicated issue of colleges and student privacy in the digital age.
Social Media and the Student
Over the past few years, social media has become a major part of how nearly everyone, young and old, uses the web to connect, share, and find information. Colleges haven’t missed out on this trend, creating Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts, and even their own internal social networks to connect students, alumni, and faculty members. In many ways, this has been a positive change, as it allows students to learn more about schools before attending, to network, and even to keep up with what’s going on with a school on a daily basis. Some students even report being able to build up groups of friends before setting foot on campus, easing the transition to college life and setting students up for greater success.
Yet not every aspect of the expansion of colleges into social networks has been positive. Students may find that their social media profiles are subject to scrutiny from admissions officers during the admissions process, with officials looking for any activities or information that might indicate that a student is a less than ideal candidate to attend their university.
It might seem trivial, but the issue has become such a big deal that many prospective students have begun changing their names on Facebook or deleting social media accounts altogether to avoid scrutiny from admissions officials. It may just be a smart move as a recent survey found that, more than 25% of 350 admissions officers at top schools use Facebook and Google to look up prospective students.
Cases Making Headlines
It doesn’t take much effort to find examples of schools challenging students’ right to privacy and free speech when using social media. At Catawba Valley Community College, student Marc Bechtol was banned from campus and suspended him for two semesters for complaining via Facebook about the school’s aggressive marketing of a debit card, which he believed led to his information being shared without his permission. His comments, which he immediately retracted, cost him his enrollment at the school, but the decision was reversed once the Foundation for Individual rights in Education (FIRE) got involved. Still, Bechtol didn’t get off without a scratch. He now has to notify the school anytime he uses campus computers.
Rulings aren’t always in student’s favor, however. University of Minnesota student Amanda Tatro found herself in hot water after making some off-color remarks on Facebook about her mortuary science courses. The university wasn’t pleased and gave her a failing grade in the course, forced to her take an ethics class, and required a psychiatric evaluation. Tatro felt the punishment violated her free speech rights, but the Minnesota Supreme Court didn’t agree, stating that schools can reasonably limit speech if it is disruptive.
Student and dedicated environmentalist Hayden Barnes felt the impact of social media’s impact on free speech after he posted a collage of Valdosta State University president’s remarks regarding the construction of a $30 million parking facility on campus. Barnes didn’t realize his Facebook account was being monitored by the president, already aware of Barnes’ outspoken activism against the project, who decided to expel him for the remarks. While the case is still ongoing, the school’s president was found liable for violating the student’s due process rights.
So what can you do to keep your social media profiles private and out of the reach of your college?
A good first step is to learn what rights your individual state gives you with regard to social media privacy and what the rules are in place at your school for social media use. Knowing where you stand with regard to both the law and the rules of your individual institution will help you to understand your rights and your obligations and may take some of the mystery out of what you can expect when using social media before and during your college years.
If you haven’t already done so, it’s also smart to ensure that your social media profiles — every single one of them — are as private as the settings of each site will allow. This may mean requiring passwords to access your content or changing settings so that friends can’t tag you in photos or posts. For those who are truly worried about privacy concerns, blogging, tweeting, or using other social media sites under an alias might be an option. However, not all sites allow or encourage this, and some, like Google Plus, make it very difficult to create fake profiles.
“In truth, there is no such thing as true privacy on social media,” said Steven Shattuck, of Slingshot SEO and Social Media Today. “Anything you post can be viewed and shared by anyone, even if you have ‘privacy’ settings set to the max. The only true way to have privacy is to not use social media at all.”
Since for most students, totally disconnecting isn’t an option, Shattuck advises, “students should take caution not to post anything intensely personal or potentially embarrassing about themselves or post embarrassing content about others. Invading another person’s privacy using social media can open people up to legal problems.”
If students really feel the need to express themselves publicly, they should keep it civil. “It’s likely that students will take to social media to voice opposition about the issues they care about,” Shattuck states. “They should take care not to do so in an inflammatory or threatening way, or voice opinions that they may regret later on in adulthood.”
What if you’re worried that you’ve already said something you shouldn’t have? While there’s no way to completely erase something from the Internet, you can delete old posts or tweets, remove your name from them, or simply learn if you’re protected under current free speech laws to say the things you’ve said. All of these actions can help to protect you and ensure you’re not putting your college career in jeopardy for a few online missteps. What’s more, these kinds of preventative actions are even more important to remember as you move into the workplace, where social media and free speech often come to odds with employers.
College Email Privacy
While you might like to think that the emails you send to friends, family, and professors through your student email account are private, the reality is that they aren’t. Not even close, in fact. While it’s not common practice for colleges to randomly go through student and faculty emails, if wrongdoing is suspected, schools often don’t hesitate to access student accounts and to read the emails contained within. Perhaps more disturbing is the face that they’re well within their rights to do so.
Cases Making Headlines
One of the most high-profile examples of this in recent months has been at Harvard, where administrators searched through the email accounts of 16 resident deans without permission or notification in an attempt to find out who was behind a leak that revealed a student cheating scandal to the media. Not only were Harvard’s actions ethically questionable, they also violated the school’s own policies, which require notice of any email search before or immediately following the incident. Harvard alum Richard Bailey said of the university’s actions, “This is, I think, one of the lowest points in Harvard?s recent history — maybe Harvard’s history, period. It’s an invasion of privacy, a betrayal of trust, and a violation of the academic values for which the university should be advocating.”
While Harvard’s search may have been off-putting, schools are well within their rights to monitor emails sent through their own servers, at least according to court rulings on the matter. In 2011, a student took Elizabethtown College to court after a heated encounter with the school’s chairman of the education department motivated the school to begin monitoring his emails. The student claimed this monitoring violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Stored Communications Act, and was common law invasion of privacy. The court disagreed, stating that colleges have the right to search and monitor their own systems.
It’s not just the potential for snooping that makes college emails a privacy concern, however. School email accounts are often used to communicate with administrators, advisors, and professors about a student’s grades, information that’s protected by law. It is not unheard of for emails warning about low grades or other sensitive information to be released to the wrong individuals, or in one case the entire school. At Wesley College, an email about low GPA intended for just 18 college students made its way to entire student body, compromising confidential information and embarrassing the students it was intended to motivate.
While you may not be able to prevent a mass email from revealing private information about yourself to the whole school, there are measures you can take to help improve the privacy of your emails on campus. The most important step is to only use your school-issued email for discussing your classes, emailing professors, and other school-related issues. All other emails should be sent through a private email account created through an outside provider. While these types of accounts aren’t entirely private either (they can be monitored by the government), they will ensure that school administrators can’t get instant access to any emails you’ve sent on campus.
It can also be helpful to know your school’s policy on email privacy. Some may require you to be notified that your emails are being monitored or read while others will not have any such policy in place. Associate Professor of Communications Law and Journalism at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University Roy Gutterman agrees, saying that while some forms of speech may be protected that there are technical concerns with regard to messages sent over campus emails or using campus computers that are described in computer use policies which may limit some kinds of speech. Remember, it is legal to search and read any emails on your school’s server, so be smart about what you choose to share and send over these networks.
Legal Protections Offered to Students
While there are not laws that address all aspects of digital life and privacy just yet (things are changing much too rapidly for legislation to keep up), there are a few laws that can help you to keep your private life private while you’re a student. Here are the two major ones you need to know about.
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA): FERPA, passed in 1974, is a federal law that helps to ensure that students both have access to their educational records and have control over disclosure of information in those records. Generally speaking, this means that schools are not allowed to disclose information about grades, test scores, or other educationally-related information without a student’s permission. Parents, or any other figures outside of the school, cannot access any of this information without express permission from students.
- Social Media Privacy Laws: Whether or not you’ll be protected under this type of legislation depends on where you go to college. Currently, only six states offer protection of one form or another under social media privacy laws. These states include California, Illinois, Delaware, New Jersey, Michigan, and Maryland. Not all of these laws apply to academic institutions, however. Only California, Delaware, Michigan, and New Jersey have prohibited colleges from forcing students to disclose any personal password information to school officials. This many change in the future, as more states propose and attempt to pass laws that protect private passwords from being disclosed by employers or schools.
Gutterman adds that students can often fight back with regard to free speech infringements using the First Amendment itself, but how far it goes in offering protection may depend on the type of school you attend and the way it interprets certain types of speech. “On a state college campus, the First Amendment applies and any action can be considered state action, assuming there are no legitimate grounds to punish the student or censor the student,” says Gutterman. “But college administrators often have a liberal interpretation of legal doctrines like harassment or defamation and often use these doctrines to punish offensive speech when there has not been a legitimate legal finding that the speaker actually harassed or defamed someone. Private colleges do not have First Amendment barriers. So, students face more risks there.”
These laws and others guaranteed to all Americans don’t cover all the ways that students can experience a violation of their privacy while they’re in college, especially as new data collection and tracking technologies make it easier than ever for schools to keep tabs on their students. However, they do offer a great first line of defense and help to ensure that students have a way to fight back when their private information is being unwillingly shared.
Generally speaking, most colleges respect the privacy of students and work to help ensure that records and information stay out of the wrong hands. But not everything is off limits, especially as the Internet makes it easier than ever for schools to monitor students even when they’re off campus. While many students may not see privacy as a major concern, at least not one that affects their daily lives, it is something that needs to both be considered and addressed as it can have a big impact on success in school and in jobs after graduation.