Students, be warned: the college of your choice may be watching you, and will more than likely be keeping an eye on you once you enter the hallowed campus gates. America’s institutions of higher education are increasingly monitoring students’ activity online and scrutinizing profiles, not only for illegal behavior, but also for what they deem to be inappropriate speech.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the speech codes, censorship, and double standards of the culture-wars heyday of the ’80s and ’90s are alive and kicking, and they are now colliding with the latest explosion of communication technology. Sites like Facebook and MySpace are becoming the largest battleground yet for student free speech. Whatever campus administrators’ intentions (and they are often mixed), students need to know that online jokes, photos, and comments can get them in hot water, no matter how effusively their schools claim to respect free speech. The long arm of campus officialdom is reaching far beyond the bounds of its buildings and grounds and into the shadowy realm of cyberspace.
A scary experience
Consider the case of Justin Park, a Korean-American student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. An intelligent and driven young man — smart enough to start at Hopkins at 15 — Justin began his junior year this past fall. But due to charges of racial harassment stemming from a party invitation he posted on Facebook, he was suspended from school this past November.
As social chair of his fraternity, Justin composed an invitation to a “Halloween in the Hood” party, one of many intentionally un-PC themed parties the fraternity had thrown over the years (others included a “White Trash Trailer Bash” and a “Catholic Schoolgirl Party”). Taking his cues from Chapelle’s Show and MTV videos, he crafted the invite’s call, listing gangsta rapper Ice-T as the party’s host and asking partygoers to “come dressed in yo’ bomb ass Halloween costume or git smok’d.” It was an awkward attempt, to be sure, but Justin thought it was the kind of ironic humor that his peers would recognize as making fun of himself and the party as much as anything else.
Justin posted the party invitation on Facebook. After all, every one of his friends was a member of Facebook. Come to think of it, so was pretty much the entire student body. And that’s where the problem started.
Justin’s friends weren’t the only ones who saw his invitation. In fact, the university’s director of Greek Affairs regularly monitored Facebook activity — and he was not amused. Calling the invite offensive, he asked Justin to take it down. He did. But once the invite was removed, people kept e-mailing Justin, asking if the party was still on.
So Justin put up another invite the next day, making sure to remove what he thought to be the offensive language. In fact, he hammed it up: right next to the call for attendees to wear “copious amounts of so-called ‘bling bling ice ice,’ ” he wrote that he didn’t “condone or advocate racism, fascism, communism, consumerism, capitalism, terrorism, organism(s), sexism, womanism, jism, or any other –ism’s,” but referred to Baltimore as an “HIV pit” and made mocking references to O.J. Simpson and Johnnie Cochran. As far as Justin and his friends were concerned, however, the invite was an obvious joke.
The party was held the next night, and it was well-attended. Not all who came, however, enjoyed themselves. According to the Baltimore Sun, members of the Black Student Union attended the party, and to many of them the party was a direct affront, a celebration of negative racial stereotypes. Black Student Union members took particular offense to a skeleton pirate dangling from a noose, which they perceived as an obvious symbol of lynching. (The university later concluded, however, that the skeleton had been meant to represent the motion picture Pirates of the Caribbean.)
A week later, Justin received a letter from John Hopkins’s associate dean of students, informing him that he’d been charged with violating university policy because of the language used in his invitations. Specifically, Johns Hopkins charged Justin with “failing to respect the rights of others and to refrain from behavior that impairs the university’s purpose or its reputation in the community,” violating the “university’s anti-harassment policy,” “failure to comply with the directions of a university administrator,” “conduct or a pattern of conduct that harasses a person or a group,” and “intimidation.”
Although they sound official, these quasi-legal charges wouldn’t stand for a second in a real court. According to a 2003 statement by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the legal standard for “harassment” is behavior that is “sufficiently serious (i.e., severe, persistent, or pervasive) as to limit or deny a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program.” The OCR, in fact, issued the 2003 statement to address the rampant abuse of “harassment” charges to punish un-PC speech. Justin’s speech, however obtuse, was still well within the bounds of expression protected by the First Amendment. As Gregory Kane, an (African-American) English professor at Johns Hopkins wrote in an editorial column for the Baltimore Sun: “We’ll just keep saying it until the idea sinks in: There is no right, constitutional or otherwise, to not be offended.”