The list of college students and others whose careers have been damaged or reputations sullied by postings or pictures on Facebook or MySpace is long and growing. A columnist at Pennsylvania State University's student newspaper is a new addition to the list, and his firing is raising questions about journalistic ethics and the blurring lines between public and personal views.
Zachary Good, a junior in Penn State's political science department and a columnist for the Daily Collegian, joined a Facebook group that, replete with the F-word, critiques the university's Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, an annual event that raises money for cancer research. Good, who had said in a column last fall on his personal Web site that many students take part in the Thon “because they’re told that as a member of a fraternity or sorority, they should,” posted comments on the Facebook site that criticized the event and its supporters for being shallow and self-interested.
"Hey everybody! I'm making t-shirts for AIDS Walk 2007 -- you want in??," Good wrote. "We'll all wear them one day to show everyone we care about people with AIDS! I'll make a line dance."
His comments (and others on the site) inspired the creation of another Facebook site, "Fire Zach Good from the Daily Collegian," and some of its members reportedly wrote to the Daily Collegian's editor, Erin James, complaining about Good's writings. "[W]e totally understand freedom of speech, 110%," the group's sponsors wrote on the Facebook page. "If you do not wish to participate in THON, we don't not care. If you do not support THON, that’s your loss. However, when we pick up a copy of the Collegian, we deserve writers and opinion writers with some class and dignity." Anyone who supports a Facebook group that derides the dance marathon in such degrading terms "has anything but those things."
Last week, James called Good into her office and delivered the news that he was off the paper's staff. She said he had violated the student newspaper's code of ethics, which among other things says that
- "[T]he press has a lot of influence in the area it serves. Staff members must recognize that presence and must act humanely, responsibly, and professionally"
- "Students must remember they represent the Collegian on and off the job and try to act accordingly," and
- "The final responsibility for ethical considerations and decisions rests with the editor in chief alone."
In a column on his personal site, called "Happy Trails, Daily Collegian," Good said that “it becomes obvious that the basis of my firing is hazy at best.” In an interview, he said there is “no specific section of the Collegian Code of Ethics that makes a reference to content on Facebook or other social Web sites." He added in his column: “It’s difficult to draw the line between what is appropriate and inappropriate representation of the Collegian on a public forum.”
He also noted that other Collegian editors, including James, had participated in Facebook sites with controversial names or content. “It’s a slippery slope by censoring me with what I’ve done on Facebook,” Good said. “It made them look hypocritical to where they need to censor others on the staff.”
In an interview, James said that one of the ethical guidelines is to “act professionally when responding to criticism.” That, she suggested, was Good's downfall.
In a blog post on the newspaper's site entitled "I'm No Donald Trump, But..." James did not mention Good by name. But she wrote: "For some reason, there’s a popular belief that newspapers do not have the right to terminate employees who break the rules, particularly when the rule-breaking has something to do with speaking publicly.... When employees, or staff members in the case of the Collegian, break these rules, they are subject to consequences. In some cases, those consequences include dismissal."
Anyone, she wrote, "has the right to free speech. No one has the right to be employed at a newspaper. That is a privilege." She continued: "At the Collegian, we hold our staff members to high standards and require them to act professionally on and off the job, particularly when they are representing the Collegian and responding to criticism."
James challenged Good's assertion that her own participation in a Facebook site was equivalent to Good's breach. James was a member of a group called “Adam Slusser has a huge c---,” which she described as "humorous.” “Being in a group like that has nothing to do with being on the Collegian,” she said.