Group says U of C 'censored' student's Facebook album

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • May 06, 2009 @ 4:00 PM

A national advocacy group is raising free speech issues with the University of Chicago for demanding that a student remove derogatory information about his girlfriend from a Facebook page. 

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education compained about the incident in February, says Adam Kissel, a director at the group.

“The University of Chicago is claiming the power to censor off-campus, disrespectful, allegedly disrespectful speech,” Kissel says.

The incident began in January, when a U of C student posted a photo album on Facebook naming his ex-girlfriend in the title and exclaiming “(she) cheated on me, and you’re next," says Kissel.

The album included pictures of his ex-girlfriend, along with photos of the male student with several other people.

The male student's friends started commenting on the album. Two of them called the woman, whose name has not been released, a “whore.”

The university got involved when the woman complained to the dean of students and said she felt libeled, Kissel says.

The U of C asked the male student to remove his girlfriend's name and picture from the Facebook page or face possible disciplinary action, Kissel says.

In a written statement, university spokesman Bill Harms defended the actions the university took.

“In order to make the free exchange of ideas possible, students, faculty, and other members of our community must help create a safe, respectful climate in which inquiry and debate can flourish,” the statement says.“The University’s policies and practices are designed to safeguard that culture of robust and respectful discussion, and the legitimate rights of all involved.”

Harms declined to answer other questions on the matter.

The school announced this week it is hosting an open forum on free speech issues on Friday, partially in response to the Facebook incident.

The male student could not be reached for comment.

“The demand to censor went too far,” Kissel says. “A request to consider the feelings of the ex-girlfriend would have been appropriate.”

Because the university is private, it does not have to allow for free speech under the First Amendment.

But in 1967 the university proclaimed the importance of maintaining intellectual independence in a document known as the Kalven Report. The three-page report also strongly implies that the university must uphold the principles of free speech, stating, “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics.”

Kissel says he can understand how the content on the student’s page would be seen as offensive. But that doesn’t justify the university’s actions in all but demanding censorship.

“There’s an important distinction to be made between the university punishing protected speech and criticizing protected speech,” Kissel says.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.

Discuss

KELLY KLEIMAN, 05-07-2009

A strong piece on the challenge to the University of Chicago's effort to require a student to remove a libelous attack from his Facebook page. Two addenda, though:

* the "national advocacy group" FIRE is funded by the Scaife Foundation and devoted to efforts to interfere with university speech codes and other purported examples of liberal bias in academe. Its objection may well be less to interference with free speech than with efforts to acknowledge and eradicate sexism. Any account of FIRE's intervention in this otherwise completely local and private matter should probably include this context.
* libel is not protected by the First Amendment, even if the University of Chicago chooses to apply the Amendment to conversation on and around its campus. Calling a woman who doesn't charge for sex a "whore" is libelous, and neither she nor the University she attends is obliged to tolerate it. I suspect a conversation with the University counsel's office would reveal that the University took action to avoid subjecting itself to liability for failure to do so, as the unnamed woman is a student and entitled to the University's protection.

I have no connection with the story or the participants (other than being twice a University alumna) but I recognize polite right-wing demagoguery when I see it and think others ought to be alerted to its presence.

WILLIAM SHERLOCK, 05-07-2009

I was a bit bewildered by the dean of students at the U.of C believing that he had any jurisdiction over what anyone posts on Facebook. If the girl feels libelled there already exists a venue for redress: the courts.

GEOFF DOUGHERTY, 05-08-2009

Kelly,

Interesting comments. I'm not sure I'm seeing the right-wing bias here. Regardless of which side you agree with, it seems clear the situation raises some interesting questions about free speech and the boundaries of a university's control over student conduct in cyberspace.

In this context, the word whore would probably be taken more as an opinion about someone's morals, than as an allegation about how they earn a living.

Opinion, of course, isn't libelous no matter how offensive.

ADAM KISSEL, 05-08-2009

Kelly Kleiman, or anyone who peruses FIRE's website at thefire.org for 5-10 minutes, would quickly learn that FIRE is entirely nonpartisan. Hers is an entirely baseless attack. See, e.g., http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/10579.html for a similar critic who has acknowledged his error. See especially http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/9069.html for clear and convincing evidence refuting Kleiman's kind of attack.

Of interest in the present case is that the dean did not require the student to remove the third-party comments calling the ex-girlfriend a "whore." Besides, no reasonable person would take such a Facebook comment by a third party as a genuine statement of fact, which would severely diminish the possibility of winning a libel case. In contrast, "X cheated on me" is a statement of fact for which truth is always a successful defense against libel. But the dean was interested in censorship, not investigating the truth.