General Civil Liberties

Cleveland State’s policing of social media suppresses free speech

05.15.17

CLEVELAND — Cleveland State University is our alma mater, and we are proud of that, because it was an institution where we were absolutely free to explore our thoughts and attitudes as we grew as students.

Part of that growth was being allowed to affiliate with progressive groups that we agreed with. An equal part was having to confront groups with opposing views. Some of those views were deeply offensive; even oppressive.

The freedom to engage with that in a safe, open forum allowed us to grow into advocates.

Now the university has announced that it will designate some groups or individuals on campus as being unfit to speak there. Cleveland State has launched an “internal investigation” into anti-Semitic tweets that some former and current students made on personal accounts in recent years. CSU officials have pledged to actively monitor students’ personal social media in the future, sending the message that beliefs that run counter to the university’s will not be tolerated. This decision crosses a serious line.

Some of these tweets had hateful and oppressive things to say. They disparaged Jews on the basis of their ethnicity. They insulted black individuals because of their race and LGBT individuals because of their gender or sexual orientation.

But allowing the university to make itself the arbiter of what is “good” or “bad” speech leaves the campus community’s First Amendment rights up to the whims of individuals in power. If history is any indication, once government officials have that power, they will always overreach. What’s more, if we silence hateful attitudes — and instead allow the school to censor them — we lose the opportunity to learn how to engage with and defeat those attitudes.

CSU’s investigation into student tweets was triggered by canarymission.org, an anonymous website that scours digital media for anti-Semitic comments. Recently, the site published a report on the Cleveland area, revealing tweets from local residents that purportedly used slurs against various groups. Some tweets contained no slurs, but only political statements critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinians. Regardless of the message, the university should not be silencing them.

CSU President Ronald Berkman is understandably concerned about what students say, but he cannot punish opinions students offer on private accounts.

As part of the internal investigation, school officials have called several current students into meetings to address the issue.

This is how free speech is chilled, and differing opinions are silenced. It also sets a dangerous precedent that any student who posts something on their personal social media account that university officials deem offensive could be in line for punishment.

In his letter to the campus, President Berkman pledged to proactively monitor students’ social media accounts for speech that he deems offensive.

What about students who oppose abortion and post photos of fetuses? Or students who oppose police brutality and post curse words when referring to law enforcement? Or students who post graphic photos of Syrian people killed in the civil war?

CSU is opening a Pandora’s Box of potential censorship. School officials should not position themselves as the arbiters of political speech, deciding what may be posted and what may not.

CSU says it will hold a campuswide event in the fall to promote civility and an inclusive atmosphere. That is an idea we can support. The best answer to speech we find challenging is more speech. It provides the opportunity for community members to discuss the underlying issues that led to the speech; for those who were impacted to discuss how it affected them; and for people to collectively determine ways to address hard issues in the future.

The university has a role in serving as a marketplace of ideas and providing space for people to process complex issues. Policing free speech undermines that role. A public university’s power to run surveillance and conformity operations on student speech is constitutionally limited. Students may have their own values, even when offensive and even when counter to those of the institution.

CSU administrators should allow this to be a teachable moment that affirms students’ First Amendment right to express their political beliefs on social media, no matter what those beliefs are.

Christine Link is executive director and Elizabeth Bonham is staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. Both attended Cleveland State University.

This op-ed was featured on Cleveland.com’s opinion page on May 15, 2017

 


Posted to Free Speech, General Civil Liberties