Universities might have to limit monitoring, set social media policies in stone under proposal

By Jody Serrano
American-Statesman Staff
Originally published Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013

In an age when voluntarily sharing one’s intimate information on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites is common, a proposal to limit what content universities have access to seems out of step.

But state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said there should be a limit to the power university administrators have over students in Texas, where there is no law to prevent schools from requiring individuals to give up their personal social media login and password information.

Duke’s proposal also addresses employer monitoring. Under it, universities and employers would have to make social media rules and consequences clear. Those found in violation would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor and could be fined up to $1,000. Michigan, Maryland and California have similar laws.

An in-depth look into how Texas campuses keep tabs on students’ virtual musings finds no consistent policy, but did find a common subject: student-athletes. In general, universities say such monitoring is needed to protect their reputations and to protect high-profile students from themselves.

In Central Texas, only the University of Texas and Texas State University actively monitor student-athletes on social media. Texas A&M University does not currently have any employees monitoring athletes, Associate Athletic Director Alan Cannon said.

“We’re not out there to prevent anyone from being engaged in social media, but we want to make sure they understand what’s going in social media and for them to be careful and to learn from their experience,” UT spokesman Gary Susswein said.

Texas Tech University in Lubbock requires some student-athletes to install the UDiligence, a program that sends players and coaches notifications when questionable language is used on social networks, said UDiligence founder Kevin Long.

Long said his company only monitors public posts, not private messages.

Dukes said monitoring public pages is fine but said asking for access to private information is a violation of First Amendment rights.

“If it is the public post, read the public information,” Dukes said. “But when you start going into private, you are really prying down. One could equate it to requiring a student or employee to provide their diary.”

None of nine colleges or universities the American-Statesman looked into for this story require such disclosures.

Texas State basketball player Jacqueline Jeffcoat has a golden rule when it comes to Twitter: Be positive at all times.

“My rule is to never tweet anything that my grandmother wouldn’t like to hear me say,” Jeffcoat said.

Rick Poulter, Texas State assistant athletic director, said the university began monitoring all of its student-athletes in 2009.

You want to make sure the university is reflected positively, he said. “The other thing is that you don’t want them to do anything that will hurt them later on.”

According to Texas State’s policy, posting derogatory comments, comments that create a danger to others and discriminatory language is prohibited. Players who violate the policy can be kicked off the team or face a reduction in their athletic scholarships.

Susswein said UT has been monitoring some athletes on social media since 2010. It contracts with Varsity Monitor, a monitoring service founded by former college athletes, to “follow” the football team but does not require them to disclose login information. He said players are informed of appropriate and inappropriate uses of social media through various channels, including orientation and their coaches.

Inappropriate use includes discussing team strategies, recruiting, injuries and “any behavior that may be seen as detrimental to the university.” Violators are handled on a case-by-case basis, UT officials said.

When it comes to student-athletes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association says ignoring social media is no longer an option. However, NCAA officials said they do not plan to require student-athletes to disclose their login information.

Sam Carnahan, co-founder and president of Varsity Monitor, said his company encourages athletes to use social media but to do so responsibly.

“The intent of monitoring is to identify potential compliance and behavioral issues early, enabling athletic departments to educate and re-educate athletes on the best way to use social media,” Carnahan said.

Jim Harrington, an attorney specializing in First Amendment rights and director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said employers and schools have no business reading private messages. Harrington said the lack of laws on this opens the door to all kinds of abuse.

“It’s ironic that in Texas we have this history of rugged individualism, that people should be able to live their lives the way they want to live them, and then they have this intrusion going on,” Harrington said.


Watching students online

These schools don’t monitor students’ online activities but have codes of conduct.

• Texas A&M University
• Austin Community College
• Blinn College in Brenham
• Central Texas College in Killeen
• Texas State Technical College in Waco