University officials are all atwitter about students using social media irresponsibly.
Student disciplinary policy changes to fix that are in the works.
But Howard Bailey, Vice President for Student Affairs, said potential changes in policy are news to him.
WKU’s social media crackdown got started when @PimpRansdell, the most popular of the fake President Gary Ransdell accounts, was removed from Twitter from Jan. 4 through Feb. 12 in the university’s move to monitor social media usage.
Since then, Ransdell posted a Facebook status urging his followers to use social media responsibly, and administrators continue searching for ways to keep WKU out of parody and vulgar tweets.
But First Amendment lawyers believe WKU does not have any legal means to do so.
Corie Martin, Creative Web Services Manager, said her office is working to expand a policy in the student handbook regarding “external communications” into a larger section on cyber harassment and impersonation.
“Cyber-harassment and cyberbullying, cyber-impersonations — including these accounts that people are setting up: fake accounts — those things are illegal in the state of Kentucky,” Martin said.
According to Kentucky Revised Statute 525.080, a person is guilty of harassment when — with the intent to intimidate, harass, annoy or alarm another person — he or she causes annoyance or alarm and serves no purpose of legitimate communication.
Twitter allows for fake accounts as long as they are labeled as such. According to its policies, Twitter does not monitor users’ content and will not edit or remove content unless it is found to have violated its Terms of Service.
Violations include clearly intending to deceive, mislead or confuse users, according to Twitter’s policies.
Martin said WKU takes harassment seriously.
“We will be adding information in the student handbook going forward about all of this type of stuff, so we’re working with Student Affairs, Judicial Affairs,” she said. “For now, we’re working with the WKU police in some cases.”
The policy in the WKU student handbook says “accessible communications deemed inappropriate may lead to disciplinary action.”
Bailey, who wrote the policy, said the university does not intend to use the policy in a way that violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
Bailey said he has “not been a party to any discussion regarding policy change.”
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate with the Student Press Law Center, said the policy in the student handbook about inappropriate communication is unconstitutional in its current form.
“It doesn’t resemble constitutional — it’s not in the vicinity of constitutional,” Goldstein said. “If they think they can enforce that, they will come to find out they’re wrong, hopefully before they actually get to court. I don’t even know why they would write that into the handbook.”
Goldstein said the word “inappropriate” makes the policy unconstitutional.
“Inappropriate — that’s really where this word falls down or where this policy falls down,” Goldstein said. “Harassment has a specific legal definition. You can’t harass somebody, and that can exceed the First Amendment, and you can be punished for that.”
Goldstein said “inappropriate” is arbitrary.
“If I say something is inappropriate, I’ve told you nothing about it — I’ve just told you that I don’t like it. That’s all it means,” he said.
Goldstein said that because WKU is a public university, it can’t make policies on what is and is not appropriate speech.
Private universities or corporations are allowed to deem what is appropriate because they are not government-funded entities like WKU, Goldstein said.
“As long as the word ‘inappropriate’ is there, that just means we’re going to punish whatever we don’t like, and as the government you positively cannot do that ever,” he said.
In the Feb. 15 message to his Facebook friends about responsible use of social media, Ransdell said WKU is watching what students tweet.
“We, at WKU, have become particularly conscious lately of some who are misusing social media and using some poor judgment,” Ransdell said. “So my message here is ‘Be smart.’ Use social media thoughtfully; always remember what you send is permanent and can be viewed years from now. Employers do their homework. They can and will track ways in which prospective employees have used social media. We, at WKU, track such things as well.”
Martin, who runs the @WKU account and Facebook accounts for the university, said she checks daily for tweets that use the WKU hashtag.
“We’ve seen a lot of insensitive comments, irresponsible comments lately that in the event that they’re ever seen by the wrong person, not only is it a reflection on the university what a student might say, but it’s also a reflection on the student, because it’s not that hard to figure out who students are,” Martin said.
Martin said she watches fake accounts, specifically fake athletic accounts, very closely for harassment.
“There are a lot of accounts off campus, or you know, set up by people that identify themselves as being a student, or otherwise, that we follow,” she said. “The minute that they delve into any type of harassment, they are gone.”
Martin said her office sends information posted online that it deems inappropriate to Judicial Affairs.
“We don’t perform any type of disciplinary action in here in my office,” Martin said. “Judicial Affairs does take notice of students.”
Michael Crowe, director of Judicial Affairs, told the Herald he has no comment regarding students being punished because of social media.
Martin said she does not think students are aware of the visibility their tweets can receive.
“Any time they use the hashtag ‘WKU,’ everyone sees it,” Martin said.
@PimpRansdell, along with an account about WKU “hoes,” were removed from Twitter because of a trademark policy violation WKU claimed, Martin said.
Deborah Wilkins, Chief of Staff and General Counsel, said the university reported a violation to Twitter, claiming that these parody accounts were using WKU’s intellectual property, such as images of Ransdell and the school.
“We had the pimp one shut down at one time because they were using our marks and logos,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said the accounts were shut down because they did not make it clear that they were not a part of the university, not because they were parody accounts.
“So as long as the website makes it clear that it’s not the person, then there’s nothing that can be done about it,” Wilkins said. “But there were some that did not make that distinction that we’ve had discontinued.”
Goldstein said Twitter is required to immediately block access to allegedly copyrighted material under a law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, even if the claim is “transparently invalid like this one is.”
Goldstein said Twitter sends a notice to the account holder alerting them that content they are using may infringe upon trademarked material. Twitter then asks the user what will be done about the charge.
The @PimpRansdell account was restored but with changes to the account, such as adding an illustration over the face of Ransdell in the Twitter display and a description saying, “This is a parody account. Not affiliated with Dr. Ransdell or WKU.”
Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the SPLC, said WKU cannot control what is said about it using trademark laws.
“The trademark law doesn’t say, ‘No one can use your logo or your name.’ It says ‘No one can use your logo or your picture or your name in a way that causes confusion of the public,’” LoMonte said.
LoMonte said it seems that the content of @PimpRansdell is clear enough to show that it is not an official account.
“I think that if the humor leaps off the page that no reasonable person is going to think that the president of a university would maintain a Twitter account like that,” LoMonte said.
Ransdell said he has not read the fake accounts but has been briefed about them. Ransdell said he is trying to understand why someone would use his name in an embarrassing way.
“…I mean, the position I hold — you can never separate from WKU. I can’t do anything in my personal or professional life that doesn’t in some way bring credit to or discredit WKU,” Ransdell said. “And so I’ve spent my entire life trying to bring positive credit to WKU, and I don’t appreciate someone taking liberties using my name, because I think that not only is it embarrassing to me but it’s a discredit to WKU as well.”
He said the university is searching for ways to take down the fake accounts.
“We’re looking into that,” he said. “We’re talking with a patent attorney, and [Wilkins] is looking into it, too, for options we might have.”
Goldstein said he does not think the university has any legal way to get the fake accounts removed.
“There is such a long, developed body of law defending the constitutionality of parody, I’m sure that’s what their attorneys will tell them,” Goldstein said. “I think there is no realistic chance that they are going to find an attorney that is going to sign his name on something arguing that should be able to stop parody, certainly not a patent attorney, not an intellectual property attorney, and really not any attorney.”
Parody is not a new concept, Goldstein said.
“I mean, we’ve been doing it since the Founding Fathers,” Goldstein said.
The university has deemed some parody accounts okay.
The Big Red Tool and its Twitter account, @TheBigRedTool, is a good example, Martin said.
“I know who runs that, and it’s all in good humor,” Martin said. “But when you start using these accounts to harass other students, to make comments that are racially insensitive, sexually explicit, it’s basically cyberbullying people.”
Goldstein said having an account shut down because of harassment would be very difficult to prove.
“There’s no way a parody Twitter account could be considered harassment,” Goldstein said. “Not within the legal definition. I mean, harassment would have to be like an ongoing series of activities that so substantially interferes with the person’s regular activities that they can’t continue to do their work.
“I refuse to accept that the president of an institution like Western Kentucky University could have that thin of a skin. I refuse to envision Dr. Ransdell sitting under his desk and crying because people on the Internet were mean to him.”
Parody accounts are not the only targets of the university social media crackdown. Students who use the WKU hashtag or any words trademarked by the university are not safe from the backlash.
Ransdell said WKU is working with social media websites to get crude or racist remarks, including hashtagged trademarked words like WKU, removed from those sites.
“We’re working with Facebook and Twitter to get those removed, because that is copyrighted — we hold the rights to WKU, and nobody can use that in ways that we don’t approve,” Ransdell said.
Ransdell said they would consider disciplinary actions for students who use the hashtag irresponsibly.
“You know, again, sometimes it’s hard to identify. But yes, if we can identify who is doing this, then absolutely that is an option that we would take seriously,” Ransdell said.
Goldstein said this is not an option that the university has legally.
“The ownership of a trademark doesn’t create the right to stop people from using it ever — it’s only the right to use it in trade,” Goldstein said. “I can’t set up a university that’s got the initials ‘WKU,’ I can’t start selling WKU T-shirts without their permission, but I can say anything I want to about WKU.”
Unless what you are saying is libelous, the First Amendment protects speech, he said.
“But in terms of can you be punished merely on the basis that they didn’t like what they said? No, you can’t be punished for that,” he said. “That would be blatantly unconstitutional.”
LoMonte said the university would have to point to a rule under which they could punish a student, and then the question would be if the rule is constitutional.
“If the rule says something like ‘inappropriate speech or uncivil speech or unwatched speech is punishable by the school,’ then that’s not a constitutional right,” LoMonte said.