There is no escaping the fact that comments made on social media and in threads following blog posts can be a little mean-spirited — sometimes a lot.
Apropos of this, a report by Agence France-Presse finds that an increasing number of sites on the internet are dispensing with reader comments. While such a solution will strike some as cowardly, it’s difficult to argue that the owners of these sites breaking the law.
Not so the action take by the student government of the University of Missouri (MU) School of Law. That body recently released a new social media policy that can only be described as Orwellian in scope, not to mention in blatant violation of the First Amendment. The policy threatens students with punishment if they’re mean on social media and ordering them to report their friends … or else.
The policy, created by MU School of Law’s Student Bar Association, claims the right to dictate how students talk about essentially anything:
Before you post content to any social-media outlet affiliated, or reasonably possible to be associated with; yourself, the School of Law, the student organizations here at the school, the Missouri Bar Association, the American Bar Association, or any other legal association, and the University of Missouri, please take a moment to review our official guidelines.
If you are a member of the University of Missouri School of Law – Student Bar Association (i.e. a person enrolled in classes at the University of Missouri School of Law), then these rules apply to you.
And what do the rules say? In essence, they bar MU students from ever being not nice on the Web:
“Do not comment despairingly [sic] on others,” the rules state at one point, but the policy goes well beyond that. Students are told to reread all posts before posting them, to ensure they contain nothing “negative or inappropriate.”
Legal blogger Elie Mystal of Above the Law summed up the policy’s overreach succinctly:
It is easily the worst social media policy I have ever seen. It is probably the worst social media policy you have seen. It is so bad that a University of Missouri student could get in trouble for going on Facebook and talking about how bad the policy is.
The school even forbids students from going too long without responding to questions they receive:
Respond to questions or inquiries in a timely fashion. Since timestamps often are published with posts, other users will know just how quickly you respond to them with accurate and relevant information.
The policy also bans students from talking about MU School of Law anonymously, and tells them to get prior approval before mentioning other people by name online. If the school sues anybody or is sued itself, it orders students to never discuss the matter unless they have it approved by the school:
- Be transparent. If you’re discussing an MU-related topic, use your real name and title. Keep in mind that what you say represents your university, your school, your classmates, and should be absolutely accurate.
- Respect peoples privacy. Avoid speaking about, or mentioning, others in your posts whenever you can. Seek that person’s informed consent when needed.
Never comment on any legal matters, litigation or parties with whom the university is in litigation without appropriate approval.
Not only are all law students expected to follow the new policies or else face punishment, but they’re also ordered to report classmates for transgressions:
It is the duty of each member of the SBA to report instances of possible non-compliance with this policy to the Vice-President of the SBA — all reports will be kept anonymous and in confidence.
Overall, the rules are very similar to those used for MU at large, but with the critical distinction that those rules apply only to MU employees and contractors rather than students, and clearly only apply to MU-affiliated websites and pages.
The policy’s scope is even more surprising because the Student Bar Association is essentially MU School of Law’s student government, with extremely limited authority. Despite the heavy-handed language of the rules applying to every student, it’s not at all clear that the policy could be enforced if they tried. Even if they had a way to enforce it, since MU is publicly-funded, the policy would almost certainly be found unconstitutional as well, as courts have consistently found public universities cannot compel students to give up their First Amendment free speech rights.
A court challenge is unlikely, though. In response to the initial backlash, the Student Bar Association has already suspended the policy.
This report, by Blake Neff, was cross-posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.