Busted in the social network

Kelly Byer

Some students have been punished for their activities online, but some people say these acts are examples of authorities overstepping boundaries

Students have been suspended for creating Web sites criticizing school administrators, expelled for inventing videos or profiles to parody teachers and have even been arrested for posting threatening messages on sites like Juicy Campus, an anonymous college gossip forum.

Some of these acts are examples of authorities overstepping their boundaries. Others are examples of students being out of line. The question is, what actions are justified and what is a violation of First Amendment rights?

“The general guideline for students who wish to engage in speech online is to use some common sense,” said Carrie Davis, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Davis said determining whether online content is legally acceptable or not depends on the established laws regarding speech and actions in general. Libel and “true threats” like cyber stalking or cyber menacing are all subject to law, as well as pictures of students partaking in illegal activities.

“Those are in fact crimes,” Davis said, “so the police are free to investigate those and prosecute those when they see them.”

ACLU Internet Censorship Case History


Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in the first attempt to regulate “indecent” speech online. In ACLU v. Reno, the Supreme Court ruled the law violated First Amendment rights.


Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, Congress created the Children’s Online Protection Act (COPA) to prosecute people who put material “harmful to minors” online. The ACLU sued, and the district court stopped enforcement of the law.


The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), introduced by Congress in 1999, became a law. It required libraries to use filters on public computers, and the ACLU fought the law in Multnomah County Public Library et al v. Ashcroft.


The Supreme Court modified CIPA, requiring library computer filters be removed if a customer asked.


The Supreme Court upheld the district court’s decision to end enforcement of COPA.


The FCC removed non-discriminatory Internet protection, known as Net Neutrality, and the Supreme Court upheld their decision in NCTA v. Brand X.

Source: ACLU, www.aclu.org

Dan Roberts, manager of security and access management, said while Kent State has no specific published policy regulating students’ use of online sites or social networks, what is permitted depends on its effects.

“If you hurt others, you’re certainly in violation of university policy,” Roberts said.

But as for content protected under the First Amendment such as criticisms and parodies, whether students can be disciplined depends on where and with what the act was committed, Davis said.

“Mostly the courts have said that if the speech is occurring outside of school time, not using school resources,” Davis said, “then the school can’t touch it.”

Roberts said issues with the Internet or free speech would be dealt with like any other student disciplinary case. He also said Kent State does not regulate what students post on social networks.

“The university does not limit access,” Roberts said. “We don’t police them at all.”

The only limitation Kent State has is the code for student athletes.

Director of Athletics Laing Kennedy said the same policy that applies to athletes’ behavior also applies to how athletes represent themselves online.

“Our code of expected behavior’s been in effect for about 10 years,” Kennedy said, “It’s not a new procedure, it’s just applying it to the new technology and communication.”

Kennedy said the policy allows athletes to use social networking sites as long as they use privacy settings and allow coaches to access and monitor their page. It was applied “primarily for safety reasons” and because of the higher standard of behavior expected from athletes.

“To make it short, anything that is negative towards you, your teammates, or your institution, you should not do,” Kennedy said.

Vaiva Laniauskas, senior educational studies major and volleyball player, said, “We have to remember that we, as student athletes, are representing the University.”

Laniauskas said profiles are still a representation of one’s self when monitored and are important in a time when technology is a way of keeping in touch with friends and family.

“I would be upset if they told us we could not have a Facebook page,” Laniauskas said, “But because they are letting us with the understanding that we’re going to be responsible with it, I think it does uphold the First Amendment rights.”

The issue of an Internet policy for athletes has been discussed at a number of universities before but is still fairly new to courts, Davis said. The right to regulate Internet usage depends on the policy and how it is enforced.

“If the university just creates this policy that none of their students are allowed to post anything online ever, clearly that’s going too far,” Davis said, “but if a student athlete signs a contract for an athletic scholarship, and they’ve agreed to abide by these policies, then they’ve signed a contract agreeing to do that.”

Beth Bloom, junior integrated language arts major, said she has been warned against posting inappropriate material online by professors multiple times.

“It’s becoming so incredibly important for somebody going to be a teacher to make sure that there’s nothing that could be deemed inappropriate because of the risk of losing your job,” Bloom said.

While technology has provided great ways of communicating, Kennedy said it has also provided a way to impact a person’s reputation or employment opportunities.

“What you put on your page is there forever,” Kennedy said.

Bloom said she follows a simple rule of thumb.

“If you don’t want your grandmother to be upset, don’t put it out there.”

Contact features correspondent Kelly Byer at [email protected].