TheStatesman: Students could face legal trouble for Facebook posts

Story originally posted to The Statesman on May 9, 2013

By Samuel Strom

Overheard at UMD. UMD Confessions. UMD Cupid. UMD Makeouts. UMD Drunk. The list of University of Minnesota Duluth social networking groups goes on, and unsuspecting students keep showing up on them.

With the emergence of these groups and others like them on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, there is less and less privacy for students on campus. One minute you are talking with your friends, and the next minute you are the talk around campus.

“A lot of people believe that they can just say anything on the Internet,” said Kearston Wesner, an assistant professor in the Department of Writing Studies. “That’s not so true.”

And while the members of a group may be held liable for what they say, the group itself – for the most part – is in the clear.

Unless the group was encouraging students to post defamatory statements or otherwise breaching the student conduct code, the site is not at risk of being shut down.

“If a student came forward and said, ‘I was bullied on a social networking site like Overheard at UMD,’ we would investigate that and possibly take action against the student if they were found to in fact have violated the policy,” said vice-chancellor for student life Lisa Erwin. “That’s sort of outside of what happens on the site. It’s more one-on-one – working with the student to try to improve behavior if they are found in violation.”

“A defamatory statement,” as defined by the Digital Media Law Project, “is a false statement of fact that exposes a person to hatred, ridicule, or contempt, causes him to be shunned, or injures him in his business or trade.”

However, there is a fine line between a defamatory statement and an opinion.

“If someone posts, ‘She has an ugly dress,’ there’s not much you can do about it,” Wesner said. “It’s embarrassing, but it’s not illegal.”

There is also a First Amendment issue regarding the freedom of speech and the ability to communicate opinions and ideas.

“Where the line is crossed with freedom of speech is when it’s harassing: racially harassing, sexually harassing, basis on sexual orientation – all those things cross a line that’s in our code of student conduct,” Erwin said.

On the Facebook group page, UMD Confessions, students are encouraged to click a link that will allow them to anonymously post anything that they want. While it may sound appealing to be able to say whatever you want, there are ways of discovering the identities of those who posted the statement.

In 2008 at Yale University, anonymous posters’ true identities were discovered after they had posted defamatory statements about two women at the school. Legal action was taken against the students who posted these statements and a settlement was reached.

Overheard at UMD is a group that includes more than 6,000 people on Facebook, and it encourages students to “comment dumb and funny things that you hear or see around campus.”

Page administrators and UMD students, Jake DiSanto and Brian Miller, said that they check the page every day to make sure that the posts are appropriate for the page and that feelings are not being hurt. Too much.

“We usually try to moderate all negative things (and) inappropriate things that are out of line,” DiSanto said.

However, DiSanto and Miller both recognize that on a page with more than 6,000 people contributing, there will be rude comments on posts and feelings may be hurt. They both agreed that those comments come with the territory of posting on the page.

Erwin made it clear that if a student feels as though they have been bullied on a social networking group, or in any venue, he or she should bring the issue to UMD officials. She said that as far as social networking goes, there have been some students who have made complaints about the way they have been treated on social media networks, and that the Office of Student Conduct has addressed those issues.

“I am concerned about really any format or venue,” Erwin said. “To me, the issue is treatment of one another civilly, rather than, if it’s happening on the phone, or it’s happening through text messages.”

About Kate Spencer

Kate Spencer is pursuing a Master of Science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in the College of Communication and Information.

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