My friend Kristi wrote a comment below that I think brings a lot of good stuff to the fore:
Weâ€™ve been looking at the internet more and more in higher ed, particularly on sites like thefacebook.com and blogs, and it comes to a point where students have to understand that the internet is not your private hello kitty diary. If itâ€™s out there, and violates a student code of conduct or a law, and is blogged/affilitated with your school email, you can be held responsible. Employers have now started searching facebook for job applicants, and if there is a pic of you doing a major bong hit on your profile, you should know that you are not getting that job.
We have dealt with students regarding harm to self threats as well as harm to others that came from their blog. I donâ€™t necessarily agree with this Marquette case, as it seems to be an expression of an opinion on the faculty. However, the legal precedents that could be set by this are a little overwhelming. If I were to comb my students pages for expressions of guilt, Iâ€™d be here all night with judicials that I would be ethically bound by my profession to confront. So we do a little donâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tell dance, and wait for someone else to make the rules. Itâ€™s very murky.
There are four issues here as I see it. All important.
One is the notion that the internet is an anonymous place to post potentially incriminating information about yourself (e.g. your "hello kitty diary"). Obviously this isn't the case, and unsurprisingly it falls to our educational institutions to explain this to people. If you post something online and you even flirt with the idea of presenting enough detail that what you post can be traced to you, it likely will. On the other hand, this isn't necessarily the end of the world.
For what it's worth, I freely post about my experiences with various highly illegal mind-altering substances, my sexual (mis)adventures, as well as regular foul-mouthed semi-radical rants about politics and whatnot. None of this has negatively impacted my career prospects to the best of my knowledge. Now, I acknowledge that I'm not everyman in this respect. Still, while I can see how with certain employers (e.g. those who require you to urinate in a cup for your boss as a prerequesite to employment) things might be different, the lesson isn't that transparency about your lifestyle is a career-killer, just that one should be savvy as to what that kind of transparency means.
The second issue is the chilling effects that a crackdown on free speech (even speech about illegal activity) has on society. I believe that such chilling effects are specifically what the Supreme Court has set out decisions to protect us against -- and every publisher of salacious memoirs or "true crime" has my back on this one. The United States should be supportive of freedom of expression, even when such expression is used to describe illegal acts.
The legal precidents here are actually quite unclear as far as I know (legal people, feel free to give me the smackdown). There have been no high court rulings regarding student's being suspended for their publishing -- online or on paper -- that I'm aware of, and most of the higher-court cases in the employment realm have been either cases of whistleblowing or libel. Take your pick, none of the blog-related scandals of note have ever gone to trial or approached that level of seriousness. Everyone settles.
Which is really what makes for chilling effects. Regardless of legal merit, there is a high economic and social cost to waging a legal battle against an unjust suspension or termination because of public speech. This creates an environment where speaking freely about your work life is (rightly or wrongly) a business liability for your employer, where speaking freely about your education (or even your extra-carricular activities) is a liability for your future. That ain't American as far as I'm concerned.
The third issue is the "harm to others" question. Since there's nothing remotely resembling a professional code (ala old-skool journalism) in vogue for online publishing, it's up to individuals to self-regulate their expression, and lo and behold sometimes people don't do a good job. Whaddya know, personal responsibility is a fallable system. Shocking.
I personally have the following self-test before I blog anything that feels sensative: I ask, "is this my story to tell, or is it partially someone else's?" and if the latter I try not to reveal anything I don't feel is mine. Others will be less circumspect, yes, but will likely find themselves short of intimate friends if anything goes wrong.
Regardless, this is essentially a social process, not a legal one. I don't think the State (or the University, as the case may be), should be involved in sniffing around for gossip about citizens (students), or attempting to impose restrictions on public speech.
Which brings us to the fourth and final issue, in my mind the most important: the social effects of transparency through widely available self-publishingl; truly global free speech. In this case, the operative sentence in Kristi's post is about the number of write-ups she'd be compelled to do if she read through student's pages.
Sooner or later we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that we have a number of legal codes which are largely illogical, unevenly enforced, and roundly disrespected in America. Two that spring to mind are a copyright regime which serves content-hoarding corporations rather than the public good, and a series of prohibitions over relatively innocuous chemicals which a significant subset of the population likes to imbibe from time to time for shits and giggles. The fact that we have these kinds of laws undermines the meaning of law itself. However, that's a whole other kettle of fish. What is at hand is not some ill-advised laws, but the phenomena of a society being driven to confront the broader cultural issues which drive these laws, as well as many other suspect legal and social taboos, by an increasing trend of transparency in social and professional life brought on by an uptick in public speech on the internet.
Now, transparency is not an unmitigated virtue. Privacy is important. However, transparency serves a free society much more so than secrecy does. The truth always feels better. No one should be forced to out any information about themselves or have information revealed against their will (that's privacy), but in the same token, no one should be afraid of revealing the facts of their lives. No one should be forced to live in secret.
The obvious (though extreme) counterpoint is what if someone has done something really wrong, something truly awful. Clearly if you start bragging in public about your killing and raping, you should expect -- and assuming you weren't lying and that there's evidence to be found to support a case -- serious and swift reprecussions. However, this is a pretty outlandish example, and even in cases of some capital crime there's a statute of limitations which theoretically allows someone guilty of felony to speak publicly about their crime without fear of legal reprecussion. This isn't precicely the philosophical justification for statues of limitations, but within a free society, I see it being one of the side effects.
Because the reality of the situation is that we need to be able to talk about our existence, whether we are a straight arrows or outlaws or (as are most of us) somewhere inbetween. If we cannot do this, we are not free. This is what Savio is on about when he says, "To me, freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. ... It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels." In that sense it trancends whatever patriotic American sentiment I may try to ascribe to the issue and becomes something truly about humanity.
And I buy that. Truly, to lead dignified lives we must be unfettered in our action, and even moreso we must be unfettered in our expression. Anything less is a path to darkness.
(morning update: that last bit is a tad dramatic, but you know what I mean, right?)