Who Should Prevent Social Media Harassment?

Women's organizations step up pressure on colleges and the Education Department to do something about the anonymous app Yik Yak. But even amid a series of arrests for threats posted there, can higher ed monitor and regulate what goes on off-campus networks?

October 22, 2015

WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday 72 women's and civil rights organizations urged the U.S. Education Department to tell colleges that they must monitor anonymous apps like Yik Yak -- frequently the source of sexist and racist comments about named or identifiable students -- and do something to protect those students who are named. The groups said they view anonymous online abuse as an emerging issue under provisions of the Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

For colleges, Yik Yak and similar apps have already led to numerous protests and anger, but some experts question the practicality and legality of administrators doing what the groups want.

Two of these groups, Feminists United on Campus and Feminist Majority Foundation, also filed a specific complaint with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights alleging the University of Mary Washington failed to adequately address harassment and threats against students posted to Yik Yak last year. Representatives from those groups said Wednesday that the OCR informed them it would investigate their allegations.

The trouble at Mary Washington stemmed from a debate over Greek life and sexual assault. Anonymous rape and death threats against members of Feminists United on Campus were posted to Yik Yak after the Feminists United members came out against allowing fraternities and sororities on campus and criticized the campus rugby team for a lewd chant. That April, Grace Rebecca Mann, a Mary Washington student and former Feminists United board member, was murdered. Though no evidence has arisen linking her death to threats made on Yik Yak, many see a link. Steven Vander Briel, her housemate who is charged with Mann's murder, pled not guilty in August.

Racist or offensive posts to Yik Yak have prompted protests on college campuses in the past, but law enforcement has also started to become part of the story. Students have been arrested in recent weeks for threats they made using the app at Texas A&M University and Emory University. After a Michigan State University student posted “I'm gonna [pistol emoji] the school at 12:15 p.m. today,” he was charged and was sentenced to two years' probation and an $800 fine.

In the Mary Washington case, Feminists United and Feminist Majority Foundation filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, accusing the university itself of fostering a hostile environment on campus by responding too slowly and inadequately to the situation. And after the Mary Washington president, Richard Hurley, vociferously refuted those allegations in a letter to the campus community, the two groups amended their complaint, accusing Hurley of retaliating against the students with a “disparaging” letter. In addition to discrimination and sexual harassment, Title IX laws prohibit “retaliation” against anyone who files a complaint. In a letter sent Friday responding the complaint, the OCR said it has jurisdiction over and will investigate both allegations.

“This is a big achievement,” said Debra Katz, one of the lawyers representing the groups who filed the complaint. “Anonymous social media apps are the new frontier of unlawful conduct under Title IX,” and by opening this investigation, the OCR is “demonstrating that it takes these anonymous social platforms seriously.”

The University of Mary Washington did not respond to requests for comment. In his letter, however, Hurley said the university does not have the legal authority to track down threats on its own, and in response to concerns over Yik Yak, the university increased campus security, offered a campus escort to a student who felt unsafe and encourages all students to report all threats, even anonymous ones, to the campus police and Title IX office.

Katz, along with representatives from several feminist and civil rights groups, along with the two behind the OCR complaint, spoke at a press event Wednesday, urging the Department of Education to issue new guidelines regarding sexual harassment on campus. A total of 72 groups signed a letter asking “that the Office for Civil Rights issue guidance reminding academic institutions of their legal obligations to prevent and remedy all forms of prohibited harassment, including harassment through anonymous social media applications.”

“It is the obligation of every university and every college that allows this type of social media to go through its server to be made available as apps on its campus to monitor it,” Katz said. “The burden needs to be on administrators [not students] to monitor this, and to report it and to take it seriously.”

But that may be a tall order for most colleges and universities, said Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “To require universities to police anonymous speech online sets them up for failure,” he said. “Even setting aside the First Amendment implications, which I think are substantial.”

The Supreme Court has affirmed multiple times, he said, that there is a right to anonymous speech, and that the First Amendment applies to public colleges. There are exceptions for speech that is threatening or defamatory, but those categories are narrow, and “making that determination is beyond the competency of colleges.”

That hasn't stopped some colleges from trying, though. The College of Idaho, a private liberal arts college, took a step beyond blocking access to the app over its campus network with a technique called "geo-fencing" that makes the app totally unusable within a certain radius. But even that wasn't 100 percent effective, The Idaho Statesman pointed out, because students were still free to use the app off campus.

Colleges do have some options, according to Tracy Mitrano, a consultant on technology and legal issues and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed. But banning these anonymous apps or having the universities themselves monitor them is probably a bad idea. “Universities are in a very difficult place. They are interested in being sure their campus is a safe place to women and minorities, but they are being asked to control things out of their control.”

Banning these sites incurs very serious First Amendment concerns, Mitrano said, and usually isn’t very effective anyway because students can connect on their own, avoiding university servers. Monitoring them would be a “Sisyphean task,” she said, and from a university’s perspective, it would be “difficult to track who is making threats,” because the posts are anonymous.

“But just because you can’t find the offenders doesn’t mean you do nothing,” Mitrano said. Rather, colleges should focus on changing campus culture via education, expanded counseling services, and partnerships with student groups and Greek life.

Kenyon College, for example, took to the very social media it was trying to change with a project called Respectful Difference.

Yik Yak itself has taken some steps toward addressing the anonymous harassment the app is often criticized for. “Guarding against misuse is something we take incredibly seriously, and we’re constantly working to enhance our protective measures,” said Hillary McQuaide, a company spokesperson, in an email. “Today, we have a number of safeguards in place like filters, pop-up warnings, in-app reporting, moderation and suspensions. In addition, we’re incorporating natural language processing and machine learning techniques. Encouraging a positive, constructive and supportive community environment on Yik Yak is a top area of focus for us.”

Critics, however, like Katz and the groups she represents, say whatever the app is doing obviously isn’t working. “The steps Yik Yak has currently taken to address inappropriate comments are insufficient and ineffective,” Katz said. “None of these approaches has succeeded in addressing the program.”


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