For GW students, the apparent division between the digital world and reality has come to an end. In the digital world, students post and update a plethora of personal information on a popular website, theFacebook.com, without fear of the real-world ramifications. Recently, however, Student Judicial Services showed there are in fact ramifications for online activities by using the Facebook to identify members of off-campus groups that the University considers to be engaged in dangerous conduct.
It is clear that the behavior of some unrecognized fraternities contradicts the boundaries set by the student code of conduct. SJS, however, overstepped its bounds in addressing this problem by sending threatening letters to students that may or may not participate in these groups – based simply on their Facebook affiliations. While it is in the interest of the University to protect its students from hazing and other activities that are associated with unrecognized fraternities, GW students should not be threatened with vague consequences emanating from unconfirmed information gathered from the Facebook in what may be an affront to their rights.
Students everywhere need to realize that the digital world is public domain. Information posted on blogs, journals and even the Facebook can be viewed by anyone – including potential employers and university administrators. Up until recently, university administrators across the country had no direct, anonymous access to student life. The proliferation of the Internet as a tool used by students, faculty and administrators has changed this reality. GW has responded by exploiting this new technology to target its students for disciplinary action.
It is not a coincidence that several high-ranking University Police Department officers and investigators are members of the Facebook. They realize that there is a wealth of information available about student life, behavior and activities online. It is imperative students be wary of the ramifications of posting incriminating information online; doing so has serious, real-world repercussions.
Such ramifications could not be more apparent than in this case. SJS has utilized Facebook to systematically target the members of APES and Sigma Alpha Epsilon for alleged misconduct. Simple membership in an online community that represented real-world activities prompted the threat of disciplinary action by GW administrators in the form of a letter.
This action on the part of SJS hints at an alarming trend in which the GW administration consistently oversteps its boundaries in matters of student rights. The only evidence used by SJS to justify sending these letters was the appearance of students’ names among the members of Facebook groups – the digital representation of groups that have been previous targets of complaints by parents and students for dangerous conduct including hazing and alcohol abuse.
If SJS does have evidence that the students targeted in these groups violated the code of conduct, they should bring them in so that due process can ensue. These letters seem to be nothing more than a scare tactic implemented by the University on their continued crusade against unrecognized groups. GW’s intentions in this matter seem admirable – for instance, protecting future students from hazing by targeting current perpetrators of such acts. Threatening unconfirmed members of APES and SAE, however, only promotes the idea that SJS is a covert, draconian institution more interested in scaring students than protecting their health and safety.
The University needs to protect itself against the actions of unrecognized fraternities. Hazing and other dangerous behaviors that these groups are alleged to engage in constitute a huge liability issue for GW. To its credit, GW has gone out of its way to inform students about the dangers of joining unrecognized groups. Joining an unrecognized fraternity is a dangerous proposition because they lack the protections and process afforded by University standards set for recognized Greek-letter groups. There must, however, be other ways of protecting itself from liability without infringing on the basic rights on which this country was founded.
Constitutional protections do not end when students enter campus. Academic institutions should protect basic rights – in this case freedom of association – especially when it is situated in the heart of our nation’s capital. Threatening students based on their association with one another without bringing formal charges for specific violations is unacceptable. Likewise, students should be cautious about their activities and the information they choose to share under an administration that deems guilt by association an acceptable policy.