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February 14, 2006

Students at Syracuse University utilize Facebook.com's online networking groups to discuss a range of topics -- the sexiest bodies on campus, the best hookah bars in the area, and even where to buy the most comfortable sweat pants. On plenty of occasions, students have added comments to such groups regarding educational issues. One group, for instance, devoted to distaste for a particular instructor, carries this description: "This group is for those of us who have to sit through this woman's boring, non English-speaking lectures for 3 hours a week and put up with her flaming red hair and disgusting, leopard print outfits. Not to mention her teeth and bad breath!"

While thousands of students nationwide have added similarly outspoken language to online discussion groups and message boards, four students at Syracuse have learned the hard way that private institutions have the right to dole out punishments if they deem content expressed on Facebook.com, or any other online medium, to violate their official codes of student conduct.

Several students, including those who have never posted on Facebook.com, and some professors, including those who have had nasty comments made about them online, are questioning whether due process was afforded to the students.

The students in this instance -- all female freshmen, three of whom attend Syracuse and one who transferred this semester to Drexel University -- had created a group last fall called "Clearly Rachel doesn't know what she's doing, ever." The description of the group continued, "and neither does Syracuse's Writing 105 program for hiring this loser grad student who loves to pronounce her Ws obnoxiously. Rachel, I'm sorry, you really suck." Next to that description, the students posted a picture of a grinning Rachel Collins, an English doctoral student at the university.
 
The group had at least 16 members, with Amanda Seideman, Colleen Smith, Caitlin Womble and Madison Alpern taking on "officer" roles in the group.

Each of the officers described their distaste for the instructor in sexually explicit or otherwise harsh ways. Seideman wrote, "I'd rather watch my brother masturbate to midget porn with my mom than go to your class, Rachel." (And that was relatively tame, and clean, compared to Womble's and Smith's comments, which can be found here.) Alpern's was the gentlest of all: "I'd rather eat all the hair stuck in the drains of the showers than go to your class, Rachel. 

Last fall, one of Collins's colleagues happened to be perusing Facebook.com, found the group, and quickly alerted officials at the university. The Office of Judicial Affairs, which handles matters regarding the code of student conduct, ultimately investigated this situation. The students say they were treated in an "intimidating" manner, and that expulsion was brought up more than once by Juanita Perez Williams, director of the office. After several weeks of waiting, the officers of the group found out that they would face punishment for violating the school's Judicial System Handbook by "threaten[ing] the emotional and mental health" of Collins.

The students were expelled from her writing class, and were placed on "disciplinary reprimand" until next fall. They also had to create informational posters for distribution around campus "about the dangers of Facebook and similar networks as well as online communications," according to Womble. Seideman also deleted the Facebook.com group. If the three students who remain at the university commit other violations of the student code, they could face expulsion from the university. Alpern did not leave Syracuse because of this incident, but for unrelated "personal reasons."

Womble said Saturday that no physical harm was ever suggested to Collins and that "no threats of any kind were made."

"I will have a reprimand on my permanent record for seven years," she added, "so if a grad school inquires into any interactions with judicial affairs or asks on an application if I had any violations that required punishment, this would apply."

Williams would not comment on whether the students received due process, nor how the specific punishments were determined. She directed inquiries to Kevin Morrow, a spokesman for the university, who said that an "appropriate process" was followed. "The book is not thrown without an individual having an opportunity to defend himself or herself," he said Friday. He declined to offer additional details on the process used in this case.

"We do not think that their freedom of speech was infringed upon," said Morrow. "These matters involved hateful, damaging and harmful remarks. The bottom line is that we're trying to protect the best interests of all our students."

Collins also declined to comment for this article. She directed inquiries to Carol Lipson, director of the writing program, who, in turn, directed inquiries to Morrow.

Joel Kaplan, an associate dean for graduate professional studies at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse, does not believe that anyone's best interests have been served. "The comments are silly, juvenile, stupid and distasteful, but fully protected," he said. "[T]his is an incredible overreaction by those in power at this university."

"If [the judicial office] wants to operate on a case-by-case basis, that doesn't seem like a standard process," Kaplan continued. "What can and cannot be said on the Internet should be spelled out clearly."

Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and a frequent critic of college policies on student speech, said that at least three of the students -- Alpern, Seideman and Smith -- seem to have received punishments that exceeded their crimes. But Womble's comment "levels a crude and personal accusation of possessing an infectious disease, which, though meant hyperbolically, crosses a different line," Kors said. "If Syracuse had excluded the student who made that specific comment from the class of the teacher, I, speaking for myself, would have not criticized the University for doing that."  

Womble said that she had little idea that posting such comments to Facebook.com could have resulted in such punishments. "The student body needs to be aware of the [the administration's] expectations and if Facebook is fair grounds for policing, they need to make us aware of it."

Morrow said that the university will not conduct further investigations of Facebook.com groups unless someone draws their attention to them.

An Inside Higher Ed review reveals that hundreds of current and former Syracuse students are, in fact, members of Facebook.com groups similar to the ones that got the Rachel Collins crew in trouble. "I Hate Writing 105," "Deport Professor Hsiang," and "Jay Wright Is the Devil Incarnate" are among current groups that may raise ire among administrators. Writing 105 is an introductory level English course, and Hsiang and Wright are professors at Syracuse.

For their part, three of the charged students have said, in retrospect, that they didn't intend to hurt Collins's feelings. "I am horrified I had anything to do with what occurred and I still feel just horrible that I hurt another person's feelings," Alpern said Saturday. "I really would like this all just in the past."

"In this particular situation, I was in the wrong as well as the other girls involved," said Womble. "I don't feel that the creation of the group was what provoked judicial proceedings, but more the content, which was unnecessary, and material that really shouldn't have been posted anywhere regardless of whether I feel judicial affairs and the administration have the right to take disciplinary action based on Facebook."

Still, she believes that the situation could have been handled differently. "I think that the group shouldn't have affected a mature educator confident in her abilities," she said. "Had it been me I would have dismissed it. I wouldn't take some Internet group by a bunch of freshmen to heart, and yes, it's more than fair for me to have an opinion on her teaching style."

Michele Weldon, an assistant professor in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, who has been criticized by students on the Internet, said that all universities are dealing with similar issues. "I think students and everyone else who blogs need to learn the lesson that you have an ethical responsibility not to intentionally and deliberate harm someone with words that you publish," she said. "This is a cautionary tale that there is no such thing as privacy on the Web. If you have something critical and unkind to say about a professor or student, I suggest you do it the old-fashioned way: Say it to yourself."

Kaplan thinks the opposite is true. "What our university did will have a chilling effect on students," he said. "We need some First Amendment training at this university."

 

 

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