Higher Education Quick Takes

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Tuesday, June 2, 2015 - 3:00am

The Supreme Court on Monday delivered a narrow ruling in a case concerning threats made on social media, dodging the larger questions about the First Amendment implications of online speech. In a 7-2 vote, the court ruled threats made online can't land someone in prison merely if a "reasonable person" -- a common legal standard -- takes them seriously.

The case, Elonis v. United States, has been closely watched by free speech advocates and victims' rights groups. A broad ruling that detailed how the First Amendment does or doesn't protect online speech also would have had implications for higher education, where administrators and faculty members regularly grapple with how -- or if -- to control student behavior on social media. Instead, the court disagreed with the circuit court's interpretation of federal law that makes it illegal to threaten someone using "interstate communication" -- in other words, the Internet.

"Given the disposition here, it is unnecessary to consider any First Amendment issues," Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in the opinion.

Anthony D. Elonis, the plaintiff in the case, was sentenced to 44 months in prison after posting threats aimed at his ex-wife, co-workers and others on Facebook. The Supreme Court reversed that conviction, sending the case back to the lower court.

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, said the ruling will create more confusion about how to determine whether a post on social media constitutes a threat. "This failure to decide throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty," he wrote.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 - 3:00am

The University of Sydney on Monday announced plans to shift undergraduate degrees from three to four years as part of a major overhaul of instruction, The Sydney Morning News reported. University officials said that more time was needed to promote critical thinking and other key skills. At the same time, the university will discourage students from taking more than one undergraduate program, but will instead encourage master's programs after a single undergraduate degree. The moves are part of a plan to overtake the University of Melbourne in rankings.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 - 3:00am

In today's Academic Minute, Michael Howell, a neurologist at the University of Minnesota, discusses his research on a sleep disorder that is characterized by intense physical motions. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 3:00am

Uber, the fast-growing taxi alternative, has lured 40 robotics researchers away from Carnegie Mellon University, The Wall Street Journal reported. Uber -- offering higher salaries -- hired the researchers to work on the company's project to create driverless cars. All of the departures have created numerous problems for Carnegie Mellon, which lost some research grants when faculty members left.

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 3:00am

The Texas Legislature gave final approval Sunday to a bill that would let Texans carry licensed concealed weapons on college campuses, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. The legislation is on its way to Governor Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it. The final version of the measure allows private institutions to opt out of the campus carry requirement and public universities to create “gun-free zones” on parts of their campuses.

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 3:00am

J. Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who was indicted last week, has resigned from the board of a center at Wheaton College in Illinois that has been named for him. The college accepted Hastert's resignation and also announced that the name of the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy will change to the Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy. Hastert is charged with making bank withdrawals in ways that could not be traced to their purpose, paying off someone. While the indictment did not indicate who that person was, several press reports have said it is a male former student at the high school where Hastert taught and coached wresting.

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 3:00am

Seven cases of meningitis at the University of Oregon have been diagnosed since January, The Oregonian reported. The outbreak is being cited as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider a proposal to recommend that all young people receive a vaccine for meningitis.

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 3:00am

The Anti-Defamation League, a group that fights anti-Semitism, on Friday announced that it tracked 520 events that it characterized as "anti-Israel" on campuses during the 2014-15 academic year. That represents a 38 percent increase over the previous year. The group also said that 29 campuses saw formal campaigns for a boycott of Israel, nearly double the number of the previous year. The ADL also noted numerous instances of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses.

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 3:00am

The University of Kentucky has renegotiated a gift from BB&T, which under its former CEO pushed gifts linked to the study of Ayn Rand, The Herald-Leader reported. The university's business school will receive $2.5 million over 10 years, but it will not be required to have a reading room named for Rand.

Monday, June 1, 2015 - 3:00am

In today's Academic Minute, Susan Brantley, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, discusses her research on the water in areas where fracking occurs. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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