Colleges contend with social media

After pictures of a “black-themed” Martin Luther King, Jr. Day party thrown by an Arizona State University fraternity surfaced on Instagram, university administrators announced the frat would permanently lose its charter because of its inappropriate behavior, according to a Jan. 24 statement from ASU.

Although the party was hosted in an off-campus apartment unaffiliated with the university and unendorsed by the fraternity, the photos of frat members dressed in basketball jerseys and drinking from watermelon cups were deemed publicly offensive and groups demanded the university take action. The situation illustrates a cringe-worthy lack of judgment but also highlights the issue of colleges’ freedom to monitor online behavior.

As a rule, colleges should not track students’ social media. Social media is a public space, but each person’s participation in it is a personal choice, and following students’ social media accounts without cause is unjust.

The students should not have held such a party to begin with, and to then publicly document it only cemented their ignorance, but punishing students for ignorant and offensive behavior violates the First Amendment. The frat is currently disbanded and the members are under investigation before further action is taken. The chapter issued an apology on its Facebook page Jan. 31, saying the members who held the party violated the frat’s rules. The pictures were offensive because they portrayed a stereotype of a specific group, but it did not happen on campus, so ASU should hold its fire until the photos are determined to be more dangerous than stupid. The fraternity has been thoroughly shamed by the publicity surrounding the event, and the university does not need to carry on any further to teach it a lesson about social media use.

ASU has social media guidelines rather than policies because it is a publicly funded university, which means it has less autonomy to determine campus policies than privately funded colleges. The listed guidelines include only vague descriptors such as “use common sense” and “be respectful.”

Columbia, on the other hand, is a private college. While it does not specifically monitor students’ social media, administrators can discipline students if inappropriate behavior is brought to their attention, according to the Student Handbook. Once reported, the students meet with the Behavioral Threat and Violence Assessment Team for possible disciplinary action, as reported April 13 by The Chronicle. The guideline is typically included in syllabi, where it says offensive language or racial slurs can result in discipline.

Posting racially stereotypical or offensive slurs on social media is grounds for termination from a job. In the case of faculty, the university should be strict because the faculty is the face of the institution. Students are the face of the college as well, but they are not permanently attached, so censoring their social media is more invasive. Colleges should be allowed to look into a student’s social media if they receive complaints about threatening behavior, but they should not be able to investigate students for offensive behavior. It limits students’ freedom of speech when they believe someone is watching.

Perhaps the frat members learned a lesson about responsibility in social media, but they should not have their academic futures permanently damaged because of a stupid mistake they made at a frat party.