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Facebook Profile Meets Catholic Values (and the Campaign)

August 7, 2008

It's 2008, and Web 2.0 has been around for a few years. The potential of online phenomena to disrupt political campaigns -- the ubiquity of activists with video recorders, say, or the likelihood that even a "private" personal page will eventually find its way into an opponent's hands -- is a fact of life grasped by most political candidates. And their families.

At least one more politician is learning -- the hard way -- that what your son puts on his Facebook profile can be a liability, regardless of whether it's visible to the general public. And especially if he attends a Catholic university.

In this case, the candidate is Bob Schaffer, a Republican and former member of Congress who's now running for the Senate in a closely watched race against Mark Udall, a Democrat. Over the weekend, a blog covering Colorado politics anonymously received a link to a mirrored version of 19-year-old Justin Schaffer's Facebook profile, which contained phrases and images that critics immediately decried as racist and offensive.

This week the University of Dayton, where Schaffer is a rising sophomore, told local reporters that it would initiate disciplinary procedures before the semester begins on August 20 to determine whether he violated its Standards of Behavior.

Schaffer's profile is still on Facebook, but he has since removed himself from the University of Dayton "network" and it is not clear whether he has removed the content to which many have objected. At first glance, the profile is typical of a college student his age: he lists Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen as favorite artists, and 1984, Animal Farm and Everybody Poops as favorite books.

Schaffer (who described himself as "Conservative" and "Roman Catholic") was also a member of numerous groups ("Justin left the group Pole Dancers for Jesus") and had installed several applications, including one that allows users to post digital "bumper stickers," and receive them from friends. Some of these bumper stickers immediately caught the eye of critics on the blogosphere, such as a photograph of Barack Obama altered to look like Osama bin Laden, another of Obama raising his hand with the caption "High Five ... Who's Gay!" and a poster featuring a Confederate backdrop and a machine-gun-wielding Christ, captioned, "What Would Republican Jesus Do?"

One bumper sticker, featuring side-by-side photographs of Obama and the Count Chocula cartoon cereal mascot, asks, "Separated at Birth?" Another, showing the pyramids, declares, "Slavery Gets Shit Done."

Schaffer has already issued an apology, but his father's campaign would not comment. "I do not agree with the sentiment or content of the offensive material, especially the 'bumper sticker' that references slave labor. It is clear that my actions were juvenile, disrespectful, and a mistake on my part," the younger Schaffer told a local news station. "The offensive materials directly contradict the values that my parents taught me and are forbidden in my parents' home. My Facebook page is solely my responsibility, and I am saddened that my actions have reflected poorly on my sisters and parents."

He did not respond to a Facebook message inviting further elaboration. Schaffer's father, the Senate candidate, told the station, "My wife and I have initiated a process of firm and severe discipline with our son."

The university, which is private, has a policy stating that "discrimination, harassment, or any other conduct that diminishes the worth of a person is incompatible with our fundamental commitment as a Catholic university conducted in the Marianist tradition. Every person, regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability shall be treated with respect and dignity. No person shall be subject to any sexual, racial, psychological, physical, verbal or other similar harassment or abuse, or be denied equitable consideration for access to employment and the programs, services, and activities of the University."

The university also upholds students' rights to "full expression," adding: "In upholding this freedom for its students, the University requires that the expression of opinion not interrupt or disrupt the primary teaching, research and administrative functions of the University or any other activity or proceeding on campus which is generally accepted as a legitimate University function."

"When Justin Schaffer became a University of Dayton student, he agreed to live by the standards of the UD community. In the Marianist tradition, affording dignity and respect to all persons are fundamental core values of the UD community," the university said in a statement. "As an institution of higher education, we also welcome diversity of opinion, political dialogue and examination of the issues of the day. We encourage those discussions to be respectful of differences.

"In that Marianist tradition, we have started a dialogue with Justin exploring our deepest values and UD's community standards. This is a matter between the University of Dayton and Justin and it would be inappropriate to comment further."

 

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