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Report: Public Universities Censor Social Media Speech

April 22, 2020

A majority of public colleges and universities filter language in posts on their Facebook pages, and some ban specific words to limit public criticism, according to a new survey of about 200 public institutions released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a civil liberties watchdog group.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are private entities, but posts by public institutions and the comments they receive are considered a “public forum” and are subject to the First Amendment, FIRE’s report on the survey suggests. Public institutions must be “viewpoint neutral” in how they filter comments on their pages and posts and only remove comments that are irrelevant to the discussions taking place, said the report, citing United States Supreme Court decisions. FIRE took aim at some of these colleges’ social media policies, which allow university employees to hide content deemed “offensive” and “objectionable.”

FIRE found that 30.3 percent of responding public colleges and universities censored 1,825 “unique words and phrases” on their Facebook pages, some having to do with national debates on race and politics. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “blacklisted” the words “Silent Sam” while protests about the Confederate statue were occurring on campus, and Clemson University blocks “boycott” and “Nike,” the athletics apparel company with which the university has a $58 million contract, according to the report.

FIRE obtained these custom “blacklists” through freedom of information requests to the public institutions included in the survey. For the 77.8 percent of respondents that use some form of Facebook’s “profanity filter” on their pages, the exact words banned are unknown and based on “the most commonly reported words and phrases marked offensive” by users, according to Facebook’s information page about moderation features.

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Greta Anderson

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