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The Blue & Gray Press | May 22, 2018

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Letter: Student questions freedom of speech infringement

Dear UMW community,

I am writing about the following questions: What is the role of university officials and employees regarding social media posts from students? When is it okay for an institution within the university to confront a student about a private social media post? Is it okay at all? When does this turn into a violation of the First Amendment? How should the institution confront the student?

I ask these questions because of a situation that occurred. I was confronted by an employee of Disability Resources about a Facebook post I had written regarding what I consider to be long delay in obtaining services. I expressed my frustration because I felt they had failed me and ultimately I was a disappointed client. On one hand I can understand why Disability Resources would be concerned because something went wrong for me to be that frustrated and angry. But on the other hand, why does an institution that does not have access to my Facebook page feel it is okay to confront me with a printed screenshot of my private post? My Facebook is only available to those who I have voluntarily friended. I left Disability Resources feeling as if I did not have the right to speak my opinion, it was not welcomed and would be reported by someone who is connected to the office. Moreover, I felt it was an invasion of my privacy because my Facebook was not connected in any way to the university. Not only was my privacy invaded and an authority figure confronted me about it, but then I felt I could no longer voice my negative opinion. This is where I see the problem.

It is not okay for an institution in any way to infringe upon a student’s right to free speech. This is a right we have as students and ultimately because we live in the United States of America. My Facebook was private and the only way the employee had access to my post was through another person. There would clearly have been a problem if I had posted hate speech or used names or been offensive, but the post simply voiced frustration. The simple fact an opinion being negative does not give the institution a right to confront a student. While I appreciate that Disability Resources is concerned about students’ perceptions of their services. I would argue that a University has no right to confront a student on the basis of social media unless the post actually violates some code of the university or public safety. Furthermore, the Office of Disability Resources should only address issues with services. The institution may approach the student with concern because there is clearly a problem that should be addressed, but the encounter should neither be implicitly or explicitly threatening or harmful towards the student. The line was crossed when I was presented with a screenshot of my Facebook post, especially because I saw the printed screenshot be placed into my Office of Disability Resources file.

Ultimately, there is gray area surrounding my original question. I think every case is unique but I also believe UMW would benefit tremendously if they set guidelines for their employees to follow about handling social media. This way it would be both easier for employees and students to know what is okay and what is not okay. We are at the primitive stages of social media and it will continue to change rapidly and is not going away anytime soon. I strongly feel students have the right to their privacy of opinion. No one should be concerned that a negative post will be reported and lead to confrontation. If there is concern then this hinders the student’s right to free speech of their opinion. Also, I think the issue of how to approach a student is significantly important. It was okay for Disability Resources to approach me on why I had such a negative opinion and reaction, but it is not okay to pressure a student to remove the status. It is not okay to have a blown up screenshot of the status that was taken from another source or retain the screenshot in an official file. There is a line and this line desperately needs to be established.