Most commenting readers scoffed at Kent State University's new policy (noted on Slashdot yesterday) forbidding athletes from using profiles on Facebook. The arguments offered (legal, moral, and practical) mostly berated the school for limiting their students to no good end, but some thought-provoking comments exposed at least some complexities which make the issue less clear-cut than a straightforward case either of censorship or contractual freedom. Read on for a sampling of the comments which typified the conversation.
Like many readers, NMerriam was critical of the Kent State policy, but skeptical of the argument that KSU's action violated the First Amendment right to free speech, writing "Not true. U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled that, as participation in extracurricular activities is not a required part of the educational mission, it can be subject to restrictions that would otherwise be unconstitutional. That's why drug tests for Algebra II are not allowed, but drug tests for Basketball are. ...The major advantage they have at the university level is that athletic scholarships are tied to eligibility (and sometimes even performance), so getting kicked off the team also takes away the money you're using to pay for school."
Along the same lines, one reader notes that "plenty of religiously-affiliated, image-conscious schools require their athletes sign a code of conduct, like no drinking in public, etc, as a condition of receiving the scholarship. Apparently Kent State believes these sorts of ties between conduct and finance aren't enough to prevent it from being known that their athletes aren't infallible supermen who excel in athletic, academic and moral standing, and wishes to add what is essentially an NDA to their contract," and argues that "Something here is broken. Maybe it's that Universities, institutes of higher education, are resorting to sporting events as a recruiting campaign. Maybe it's the number of schools pitting athletes against each other such that success requires dedication to the exclusion of personal growth. Maybe it's students, for being so vain as to photograph themselves in compromising situations, and think that the public Internet is a suitable place to distribute these to close friends and strangers alike. Maybe it's you and me for watching the whole thing. But let's face it — there's no Rose Bowl for the most wholesome two teams in the nation. The Final Four aren't the four people left at the party who refused to hook up with drunken coeds."
Along similar lines, one reader argued "Adults can also choose to enter into contracts. Since these are students receiving athletic scholarships, my guess is that it's legal to say 'If you want this free money, you can't use facebook.' It's the same way that NFL teams can write contracts that forbid things like skydiving or riding motorcycles."
In answer to these and similar arguments that the student athletes are only facing obligations in their scholarship agreements that they might in any other contract, though, another reader bites back:
"[T]here are a lot of protected rights you can't sign away, no matter how hard you try. The majority of contract signed in this country probably have at least some unenforceable terms as a result. Second, this is a public university, is it not? That means it gets a lot of federal funding and has to follow all sorts of rules that apply to government entities, but not to private businesses. Third, retroactively changing the terms of a contract is always one of those unenforceable terms."
"... [I]f the terms of this policy are really what the article would have us believe then they are begging for a lawsuit. Banning students from participating in some type of social networking site is one thing, but banning only a specific site is something else entirely."
Only a few readers seemed to chalk up KSU's limitation on athletes to motives other than the University's own self interest, including one who described the change as a move "away from the internet as a network for data exchange, and towards the internet as a one-way pipe by which to push content your way."
TexasDex voiced a more common-sense argument for the University's desire to patrol the social-networking world, however justified or misguided that patrolling might be, writing "I can attest to the fact that lots of students post drinking photos, even joining groups like 'I was drunk when my facebook profile photo was taken.' Kent state is worried about this. While I'm guessing they're wringing their hands at such open bragging about underage drinking,that sort of thing is a fact of life, from long before facebook existed."
A touch more cynically, reader revery calls it "fairly obvious" that "the school is less concerned with preventing students from engaging in illegal activity and undesirable behavior than it is with preventing it from becoming public knowledge that students are engaging in illegal activity and undesirable behavior."
At least a handful of readers suggested that the University was better off with such a policy, and that no fundamental rights were compromised by such a rider, one of them writing "College athletes on scholarship are entertainers, and getting well paid for it. Part of their value as employees of the college is their public image. If they don't like the rules they are free to leave for greener pastures.
Another comment, from a Kent State student, was similarly blunt, calling the restriction "Good, if not good enough," and continuing "No, I don't have sympathy. Stop showing off your drinking skills and go to class. I'd be happier if they'd prevent them from drinking and tell them to stop using the team as an excuse to ditch classwork when they apparently have plenty of time for parties. Considering very few of them are going to be able to rely on sports as a career, I'd be happier if the University was less concerned with image and more concerned with the fact that the images are often of underaged students drinking alcohol."
On a pragmatic level, as several readers pointed out, colleges are using information on social networking sites to find campus rule-breakers anyhow; one reader commented "At my own college, security uses facebook to find out about parties and underage drinking on campus. Chances are, someone put stupid info up and has ruined it for everyone. Do I feel bad for them? Not at all."Responding to the idea that a third party might create a fake identity for a Kent State player, a handful of readers elaborated on Facebook's focus on users at educational institutions. Reader Gothic_Walrus provided a useful capsule description:
A comment from reader finkployd (who describes himself as "a Fight The Power, Go EFF, Die MPAA kinda guy") wryly suggests that Facebook isn't really the greatest subject for an argument about Internet freedom in academia. Finkployd supplies the rhetorical question raised in the original story ("Makes you wonder why they even bother providing internet connections on college campuses.") with a possibly unpopular answer:Simple. There's no possible way to hide the e-mail address that you signed up for the account with. Regardless of any other privacy settings, if someone can see your profile on Facebook, they can see the address that the account is linked to.
Now, this isn't entirely foolproof from fake profiles. At my college, anyone with an account can log into the directory and create groups of e-mail addresses. If you can come up with a group e-mail address that's both believable and not already taken and add yourself as the group's only member, you're set to create that fake profile.
But on the other side of the coin, it's incredibly easy to log into the directory to see who an e-mail address is registered to. And if that's not good enough, there are printed directories that, if memory serves, list the person's e-mail in their contact information.
The point I'm trying to make, I guess, is that it's easy to make a fake profile, but it's usually just as easy to figure out who it belongs to.
The school has an even easier time of it. Since there's only one e-mail address per person and since the school has that e-mail address in their records, it simply boils down to looking at the profile and seeing if they match.
"Oh you know, research, email, that sort of thing. This may surprise you but the original intent of providing internet access was not to pass around mp3's, pictures of yourself drunk, and porn (well, that last one is debatable).
You would think students over the years would have gotten better about using the internet but it seems it has regressed quite a bit. I am reminded of reports of students at the university where I work getting busted selling drugs on facebook and posting pictures of themselves doing illegal things. In the papers they always seem quoted as indignantly saying "I didn't know the police could monitor that stuff, that is really scary" as though cops looking at facebook was on par with warrant-less wiretapping.
... [Y]ou can look at it as preparing these student athletes for the future. If they make it to the pros and become the typical corporate whore, they will have to get used to being told how to act, what to say, and what to do. College is actually preparing them for the real world ;)"
Thanks to the readers whose comments helped inform this discussion, especially those quoted above: