The next wave of Facebook cases concerned censorship in its rawest form, updated for the Internet age. Typically these cases involved administrators, faculty, or student officials being criticized or satirized online. Instead of responding with more speech, the “victimized” party often moved for censorship, thus echoing the centuries-old lament of censors the world over: I believe in free speech and all, but I will not be mocked!
For example, at Syracuse University, students who created a Facebook group to make fun of a teaching assistant were expelled from the class and placed on “disciplinary reprimand.” And two students at Cowley College in Kansas were banned from participating in theater-department activities after they complained about the theater department on a MySpace blog. Meanwhile, a student at University of Central Florida (UCF) was brought up on “personal abuse” harassment charges for calling a candidate for a student-government office a “Jerk and a Fool” on his Facebook account.
The latest wave of cases overwhelmingly revolves around racially insensitive speech. Around the time of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday this year, FIRE received reports of racially themed parties at the University of Connecticut Law School, Tarleton State University (TX), and Clemson University — and in each case, the party was discovered via student postings on Facebook. The UConn party was typical of the three. According to the Hartford Courant, law students “dressed in hip-hop clothes and toted 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor”; photos later posted on Facebook depicted “partygoers wearing do-rags, muscle shirts, hoodies, and necklaces with gold medallions.” Along similar lines, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a campus debate about the school’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek, has been engulfed in controversy since the creation of a Facebook group called “If They Get Rid of the Chief I’m Becoming a Racist.”
Public, Private, and the campus speech police
College administrators didn’t decide to start cracking down on student speech just because of Facebook’s popularity. Despite the fact that such institutions rely on free and open exchange to serve their societal functions, universities both public and private have been policing student speech for decades. While we do ourselves no favors imagining that there was ever a time in collegiate history that students’ rights were perfectly respected, the campus free-speech movement of the 1960s and ’70s was highly successful. The sad irony is that many from the generation that fought so hard for free speech in the ’60s and ’70s were the pioneers of speech codes and PC restrictions in the ’80s and ’90s and that we still see today.
The most common threats to student free speech are the ever-present and strangely tenacious campus speech codes: university rules or regulations that forbid speech that would be clearly protected under the First Amendment. A recent study by FIRE found that of 330 schools surveyed, over two-thirds maintained speech codes explicitly prohibiting substantial amounts of protected speech.