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Sam Houston State social media policy sparks controversial protest
Professor takes box cutter to 'free speech wall'
October 19, 2011

TEXAS — Sam Houston State University’s recent attempt to corral school-affiliated social media pages was met with concern over students’ free speech rights, spawning controversial protests on campus and a Wednesday “Liberty in Peril” event.

The Southeast Texas school started rolling out in September its Social Media Universe, a portal to department and student organization social media pages that have applied for inclusion on the site. But proposed policies accompanying the portal have raised concern among students over broad language that could remove some control from those who the run organization pages.

According to the proposed policy, groups applying for inclusion in the portal must disclose to university marketing staff the login and password information for social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The university reserves the right to “edit and delete content as appropriate,” which has caught the attention of students who would be affected.

Several student leaders at SHSU had reservations about the document, including Cristan Shamburger, president of the Bearcat Democrats group.

Shamburger specifically objected to language in the guidelines that give the university the right to add new restrictions “without reservation or obligation to defend the action.”

“I just felt it doesn’t give the students a lot of freedom,” she said.

But the concern hasn’t gone unnoticed by those responsible for the Social Media Universe.

Kristina Ruiz, associate vice president of marketing and communication, was tasked with uniting different university-affiliated social media sites about a year ago. She stressed work on the policy is ongoing and a small part of a larger program.

Ruiz said the soft launch of the Social Media Universe prompted criticism and “a lot of misconception,” adding the proposed policy is just that: proposed. Despite wording in the policy, Ruiz said student groups are not required to join the site. The draft document currently has several steps to overcome before the university can formally adopt it.

Ruiz is forming a committee to address concerns from delegates of the faculty senate, student government and various colleges at the school. She said she would also like someone with “credentialed experience in free speech to sit on the committee.”

Until a formal document is finalized and approved, Ruiz said the only policy that governs social media pages are the ones people agree to when signing up for pages on Twitter or Facebook.

“Regardless of what kind of policies we put in place, that will always be default,” she said.

But the outcry and concern over the policy has not died down after flaring up last month. Morgan Freeman, president of the political student group SHSU Lovers of Liberty, helped organize a “free speech wall” event in response to the social media policy. She said the policy would “give the administration the potential to do whatever they want and edit our content.”

Freeman got approval from the school for the protest, which allowed students to write whatever they wanted on a paper banner in a building on campus.

In an ironic twist, a math professor objected to the phrase “Fuck Obama” and took matters into his own hands by removing the offending word from the paper sign using a box cutter. The students called the police at the advice of the dean because of a potential weapon on campus, and according to an article in the Houstonian student newspaper, police said the profanity on the wall qualified as disorderly conduct because the professor was offended.

University Police Chief James Fitch gave Freeman and the organizers three options.

“They said we could either cover up the offensive stuff, put new paper and tell people they couldn’t write that kind of stuff or take it down,” she said. Freeman decided to take down the sign because the F-word was written all over the banner.

Shamburger, whose organization co-sponsored the event, said the controversy was typical of the school.

“That’s the kind of thing that happens a lot at our university,” she said. “We have a big administration who treats us like we don’t have a voice and shouldn’t have a voice.”

A second free speech wall protest capitalized on the new controversy — to prove a point, any writing that organizers felt could lead to more trouble with the police would be taped over with duct tape.

“It was actually really boring, which I feel like kind of proved our point about what happens when you stifle free speech,” she said. “A lot of people wrote stuff like, ‘I don’t know what to write because I can’t write what I want,’ or ‘This is stupid.’”

The dispute caught the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for free speech on college campuses. FIRE wrote a letter of concern to President Dana L. Gibson, who responded the incident was “under investigation.” SHSU Lovers of Liberty and FIRE are hosting the seminar “Free Speech on Campus: Liberty in Peril” tonight on campus.

Shamburger, who is also a senator in student government, said there have been repercussions following the free speech wall controversy. At a debate for city council candidates sponsored by student government, organizers were told a campus police officer was supposed to be present as a result of the protest.

Despite the uproar in the past weeks, Ruiz said the goal of the Social Media Universe and the draft policy isn’t to police content on pages, adding the responsibility to manage sites remains with the original students or staff who currently do.

“Trying to control that conversation makes it a very one-sided conversation,” Ruiz said. “The university is about diverse opinions, diverse background.”

Shamburger said President Gibson was scheduled to attend a forum in early November to further discuss the proposed policy, as there is still a lot of concern among students.

“I think what everyone is fired up about is that they can essentially take off whatever they want,” she said. “We don’t want to get rid of the policy altogether because I think everyone can agree there’s a need for it and it was created with good intentions, but the wording and some of the policies don’t make sense.”

By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer

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© 2011 Student Press Law Center

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