The party was held the next night, and it was well-attended. Not all who came, however, enjoyed themselves. According to the Baltimore Sun, members of the Black Student Union attended the party, and to many of them the party was a direct affront, a celebration of negative racial stereotypes. Black Student Union members took particular offense to a skeleton pirate dangling from a noose, which they perceived as an obvious symbol of lynching. (The university later concluded, however, that the skeleton had been meant to represent the motion picture Pirates of the Caribbean.)

A week later, Justin received a letter from John Hopkins’s associate dean of students, informing him that he’d been charged with violating university policy because of the language used in his invitations. Specifically, Johns Hopkins charged Justin with “failing to respect the rights of others and to refrain from behavior that impairs the university’s purpose or its reputation in the community,” violating the “university’s anti-harassment policy,” “failure to comply with the directions of a university administrator,” “conduct or a pattern of conduct that harasses a person or a group,” and “intimidation.”

Although they sound official, these quasi-legal charges wouldn’t stand for a second in a real court. According to a 2003 statement by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the legal standard for “harassment” is behavior that is “sufficiently serious (i.e., severe, persistent, or pervasive) as to limit or deny a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program.” The OCR, in fact, issued the 2003 statement to address the rampant abuse of “harassment” charges to punish un-PC speech. Justin’s speech, however obtuse, was still well within the bounds of expression protected by the First Amendment. As Gregory Kane, an (African-American) English professor at Johns Hopkins wrote in an editorial column for the Baltimore Sun: “We’ll just keep saying it until the idea sinks in: There is no right, constitutional or otherwise, to not be offended.”

But the law and the principles of free speech didn’t matter; Justin wasn’t being tried in a real court. A university hearing was held, and afterward, Justin learned that despite his apologies he had been suspended for a year and was required to complete 300 hours of community service, attend a diversity workshop, and read 12 books, writing a paper on each.

But weren’t these invitations posted on an outside Web site, not connected with the university? Wasn’t Justin just joking with his friends? Why was he being punished so harshly for lame jokes made on the Internet — and since when is it the university’s job to watch what students do online?

070223_facebook_main2
A Vast New Frontier
Facebook and MySpace battles between students and universities have evolved through three distinct phases.

The first few Facebook cases began trickling in to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where both authors of this article work) sometime in late 2005. This first wave typically involved students documenting themselves engaged in illegal behavior, like underage drinking or using illegal drugs. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising; after all, analysts estimate that Facebook is the Internet’s largest host of user-submitted photos, with over 2.3 million being uploaded daily. That tops even dedicated photography sites like Flickr.com. It was perhaps inevitable that students would eventually upload pictures of themselves or others drinking or otherwise partying — and just as inevitable that administrators would eventually see these incriminating snapshots and take action.

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