A Kentucky university is aggressively fighting parody and criticism of school officials and policies on Twitter and other social media sites, which advocates and students say is an attempt to silence any negative comments.
WKU junior Autum Calloway, a psychology major from Russellville, said she will tweet about things going on around campus. But she chooses her words carefully. "I don't ever criticize the school on Twitter because I don't want an ordeal made," she said, noting friends have been scolded by officials for postings deemed poor representations of the school. To be sure, it's common for universities to monitor cyber-chatter. But WKU president Gary Ransdell has jumped into the fray himself, taking to Facebook to scold students about inappropriate posts. And officials say they're considering a new handbook policy that would be aimed at preventing online harassment.
Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group based in San Francisco, sees it as an attempt by WKU to immerse itself into the flow of ideas on Twitter and Facebook. Students may wind up choosing their words more carefully -- like Calloway -- to avoid running afoul of the rules. "If you don't know whether what you're going to say is going to get you in trouble, you're better off just not saying it and not getting in trouble," he said. "And there you have it right there, speech is chilled."
Any new policy also raises the question of whether a school could limit what students post when they're off campus and not using school equipment. Many schools have anti-cyberbullying policies, but most of those apply only to school-owned servers and equipment, said Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. The school has not yet drafted any language for the handbook or set possible punishments for violators, Skipper said. The school already has vague rules against "accessible communications deemed inappropriate."
Violators of a new rule may face sensitivity training, but the idea is not to limit speech among students, said Stacey Biggs, WKU's chief marketing officer. "The point is not to tell them what they can or can't say, or what they can or can't say about WKU," she said.
Still, critics have cried foul. The campus newspaper recently wrote a lengthy article under the headline "WKU trying to pull strings on social media." And the parody account -- temporarily shut down because it wasn't clearly labeled as a parody -- recently tweeted, "Campus police department has been renamed to twitter patrol." Student criticism prompted an official response that appeared recently in the campus newspaper. Biggs wrote that the intent is not to censor students but said the university "has to offer some amount of protection to its students."
School officials have vigilantly searched for fake accounts filled with inflammatory comments, though Biggs said the school tries to have accounts taken down only if they use the university's name or logo and don't clearly state that they are parodies. In her commentary, she said such efforts are aimed at protecting the school's reputation and brand. Other schools do remind students that posts can reflect poorly on them in the eyes of a prospective employer, for instance. Some, such as the University of Kentucky in Lexington, limit that to a set of recommended "best practices."
"You don't really regulate conversations in a coffee house, for example," said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. "The same principles apply here." UK's existing campus policies applying to legal and ethical conduct extend to communications, including social media, he said.
At WKU, Ransdell weighed in on social networking in a Feb. 15 message on Facebook. He warned about the lasting consequences for irresponsible posts. "We, at WKU, have become particularly conscious lately of some who are misusing social media and using some poor judgment," Ransdell wrote. "So my message here is 'Be smart.' Use social media thoughtfully; always remember what you send is permanent and can be viewed years from now. Employers do their homework. They can and will track ways in which prospective employees have used social media. We, at WKU, track such things as well."
se social media thoughtfully; always remember what you send is permanent and can be viewed years from now. Employers do their homework. They can and will track ways in which prospective employees have used social media. We, at WKU, track such things as well. Be smart and remember the Golden Rule. It applies as much to the use of social media as it does to how we conduct our daily lives. Think twice before you hit the "post" button or "send" key. Be smart, Hilltoppers!
Such efforts amount to attempts to "stop students from offending the government-paid administrators," said Goldstein, the attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center. "Any institution that invests substantial effort into shutting down obvious parody accounts richly deserves to be parodied, because any institution with a good reputation for doing the right thing most of the time isn't worried that obviously silly statements might be confused with its genuine policy," he said. Goldstein said he's never seen a college president get to personally involved in the give-and-take in social media. "I guess it's good that he's paying attention, but I wonder if this is really the best use of his time," Goldstein said.This from the WKU Herald:
Dallas, Texas, senior Mario Nguyen was among many of the students who got fired up Tuesday when reading about the university’s policy on external communications.
Nguyen was in class in Mass Media and Technology Hall — home of the School of Journalism and Broadcasting — where the First Amendment is posted on the walls and podiums.
“For me, being in that school was really funny when I read the article, thinking about how ridiculous that (policy) was,” Nguyen said.
Instead of tweeting his thoughts using the #WKU hashtag, Nguyen created his own, #Bigredcommunism, which he coupled with an image of Big Red surrounded by communist symbols. (Shown above)
Under Big Red, the text reads:
“Join the Revolution! As social media constituents, we are the strongest form of marketing WKU has. By Unfriending/Unfollowing, you are helping limit WKU where they want to limit us.”
“I figured if I could make this go viral with the very medium they are trying to limit us with against them, I figured we would win out,” Nguyen said. “Or at least show them a thing or two.”
Nguyen said he is going to create images and political cartoons to get the word out for his campaign. He said he’s working to gain awareness of students.
“So far, it’s really just getting it out there,” he said. “I'm still in that phase — it’s only been one day.”
Nguyen said he’s going to budget his time to continue his campaign.
“As long as they keep that policy in place and they try to do this — I’m going to try, in addition to all of my schoolwork, to do this,” he said.
SGA Senator Keyana Boka said her organization is working on a campaign of its own — a social media awareness campaign.
Boka said the goal of the social media awareness campaign would help students take care of their own accounts, not telling them what they should or shouldn’t post.
“The social media awareness campaign is kind of a different aspect completely,” Boka said. “This is more just a friendly kind of reminder about safety. It’s kind of the other side.”
Boka said SGA talked about the policy at her campus improvements committee meeting. No one seemed to agree with the administration.
“(The committee is) more on the side of ‘Everyone should be able to say what they want,’” she said.
Boka said that while she personally could understand where the administration is coming from with the policy, she also thinks students should have their rights protected.
“We pay to go here, so we should be able to say what we think,” she said.
“Inappropriate” varies in meaning, she said.
“It’s just a very open word. Saying that something’s inappropriate is basically saying they don’t like it,” she said.
A resolution that supports the removal of the section in the handbook that includes the policy was scheduled to receive its second read at Tuesday’s SGA meeting.
Its author, senator Christopher Costa, pushed it back four weeks in order to do additional research.
Oakland junior Londa Stockton said she thinks the policy needs to clarify what would be considered harassment.
“Right now it’s too broad — it could be anything,” Stockton said.
Stockton said there are a lot of personal opinions on what would be considered inappropriate.
“To actually define what is inappropriate and what is offensive to use on the Web, especially when it comes to Twitter or against the school — that’s going to be a blurry line.”
Stockton said she looked at the WKU hashtag after Tuesday’s article about the policy was published. She said the reaction was enormous.
“It was kind of like once you tell someone not to do something, they do it,” Stockton said. “That’s exactly what the student body did.
“Once they were like, ‘Oh, we’re going to watch the hashtag,’ it was like everybody who had a Twitter that went to Western used it.”
Stockton herself tweeted using #WKU, “All I’m going to say is that this #Wku thing, is overrated. Students have opinions. One can’t keep the student body silent. Nice try though.”
Stockton works as a babysitter, and her Twitter account is public. She said she has her own rules regarding what she tweets.
“If I really wanted to put something out there that would be really shameful against whatever, I wouldn’t do it publicly,” she said.
“There are something you shouldn’t say, and everyone knows what they are.”