Eye of the beholder: Colleges using Facebook to punish students

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series on who may be reading students’ Facebook profiles. Read Monday’s edition for part two.

Almost a year and a half after the creation of Facebook, some students may be surprised to learn that they can be punished for having their picture or personal information displayed online.

Facebook – an online college networking Web site that allows students to publish a profile, photos, contact information and interests – may seem like fun and games, but students may not be aware that colleges and universities around the country can and have charged students with judicial violations for information appearing on their accounts.

A University employee who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to jeopardize his job said that last year, a community facilitator visited her residents’ Facebook profiles, clicked on links they had posted to online photo albums and tried to take disciplinary action against them for smoking marijuana based on their photos.

“Based upon the pictures, I said … ‘you can’t tell if something is a drug or a cigarette,'” the employee told The Hatchet.

The employee said he doesn’t believe there is a “widespread conspiracy” at GW to get students in trouble based on Facebook content and that he only knows of the one CF engaging in the practice. But he warned, “Be aware that anything you put on there, anyone in the University can see.”

Last spring, members of APES and Sigma Alpha Mu, two unrecognized fraternities, both received letters from Student Judicial Services concerning their organizations’ alleged use of drugs and alcohol.

Tara Woolfson, director of Student Judicial Services, said at the time that GW uses “a number of methods including Facebook” to ascertain the names of members in these fraternities.

Other colleges and universities are taking harsher stances on Facebook actions. Recently at Duquesne University, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, Ryan Miner was held accountable for his post on a Facebook group in which he described homosexuality as “subhuman.” The Duquesne school newspaper reported that the post had violated the University’s code of conduct and that the school asked Miner to write a 10-page paper describing “the viewpoints both for and against homosexuality.” Miner appealed the decision and will eventually receive a new trial.

At Fisher University in Boston, the president of the student government was recently expelled based on comments that

he made on the Facebook regarding a police officer. According to the Boston Globe, Facebook said the incident at Fisher is the first time a student has been expelled because of comments made on the Facebook.

At North Carolina State University, 15 students were charged by university officials for underage drinking because of pictures found on their Facebook profiles.

In an interview this week, Woolfson said SJS has no formal Facebook monitoring policy, but that Facebook has been used for sanctioning students.

Woolfson wrote in an e-mail last week, “(I)n the case that a complaint involving ‘Facebook’ such as harassment, is brought forth to our office by a member of the University community, we would investigate it fully.”

Woolfson denied, however, that SJS has ever charged a student or organization based solely on information gathered from Facebook or similar Web sites.

Incidents such as the one at N.C. State raise the issue of whether a photograph is enough evidence for a student to be found in violation of a drug or alcohol policy. What does that mean for GW – where it’s not uncommon to see students with beer funnels, marijuana paraphernalia and 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor in their Facebook profiles?

SJS handles issues on a case-by-case but “would not, on a regular basis, charge a student based on a photograph alone,” Woolfson said.

Peter Swire, the former chief counselor for privacy under President Bill Clinton and a visiting professor at GW from Ohio State University, said that students can also be held legally accountable outside the college sphere.

“A picture of a student drinking beer is basically a confession that they were breaking the law,” Swire said. “Pictures of people doing drugs are even worse.”

-Ryan Holeywell contributed to this report.

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