I recently wrote a paper on legal implications for student social media use on campus for my Higher Education Law course. I felt as though it had important considerations for anyone working with college students so rather than having it exist indefinitely in digital purgatory on my hard drive, I felt I should share what I found.
Since the advent of social media has only happened within the past few years, there isn’t much litigation on the subject but the few cases out there and precedents set by other cases in decades prior create a general atmosphere of how to approach this matter. The first case goes all the way back to 1969 with Tinker v. Des Moines. The relevance of this case comes in with the issue of behavior by students impacting the educational process. Social media behavior, which could happen a block off-campus or in another country for study abroad trips, that has an impact on the educational experience of students on your campus, can feasibly be held to this standard. This is a major precedent to be set that holds to the idea that we don’t need to rewrite the rulebook every time a new social networking site pops up. Whatever platform it may be, this sort of misconduct needs to be held to this general standard.
With this standard in mind, a recent case in 2012, Tatro v. University of Minnesota, directly deals with the legal implications of social media on campus. The student, Amanda Tatro, posted on Facebook about her work in a mortuary science lab dealing with cadavers. It was deemed to be unprofessional due to the unique and sensitive subject matter as well as the public interest the program had to uphold to be able to examine to deceased. Tatro also posted some vaguely threatening posts dealing with the same work in the lab that caused alarm as well. The mortuary science program decided to give a failing grade to Tatro for the course she has in the lab for. The institution also aimed to help her so that the situation wouldn’t happen again. The only reason it escalated to such a high judicial level was that Tatro appealed the decisions as she held true to the fact that it was all just a misunderstanding. This situation, though, is ideal for institutions when dealing with these sorts of delicate matters in terms of their legal liability; there were clear outlines of proper behavior for students in the academic program, Tatro had due process, and was given a teachable moment from it all in the end rather than giving a undue punishment for this minor transgression.
Nevertheless, these are the sorts of legal situations institutions will find themselves in now that the age of social media is upon us. It echoes the need for proper policies in regards to etiquette for our students as well as education for our students on digital literacy. We can make our students better prepared for the brave new world that lay ahead and enable them to use social media to make connections, share their ideas and to do good for their communities.