Feminist groups want schools to be required to monitor social media

A coalition of interest groups wants the U.S. Department of Education to require colleges to monitor social media and protect students from threatening and offensive comments.

The request was made last week by 72 women’s and civil rights groups, who claimed that harassment and threats on anonymous apps like Yik Yak are an emerging Title IX issue, according to Inside Higher Ed.

“Students on college campuses throughout the country have with increasing frequency used anonymous social media applications, such as Yik Yak, to target women students, students of color, and sexual minorities with harassment, threats, and other forms of intimidation with impunity,” the coalition said in a press release. “Earlier this year, students at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), for example, were threatened through Yik Yak with rape and murder after they spoke out against rape culture.”

The groups complain that the typical response to such incidents by university administrators has been “to disclaim responsibility for harassment and threats that occur on that platform” because the site is anonymous and accessible without using university servers.

In the UMW case, Feminists United on Campus (FUC) and Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), both members of the coalition requesting federal intervention, filed a Title IX suit against the school, charging administrators with a “systemic failure to protect students from a sexually hostile school environment, from sex-based cyber assaults, and from threats of physical and sexual violence.”

University President Richard Hurley responded in June with a letter calling the allegations “irresponsible” and contending that the First Amendment prevents public institutions from taking the sort of actions the groups demanded.

“Although I understand that FUC may be upset that UMW has not ceded to its demands to ban Yik Yak from campus, it is important to understand that as a public university, UMW is obligated to comply with all federal laws—not just Title IX,” Hurley explained. “The First Amendment prohibits prior restraints on speech, and banning Yik Yak is tantamount to a content-based prohibition on speech.”

Despite Hurley’s reasoning, the groups announced in the press release last week that the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights has decided to investigate their complaint, though no timetable has yet been given for the process.

At the same time, they also want OCR to “issue clear guidance concerning anonymous social media,” including “information about what steps educational institutions must take to determine whether unlawful harassment is occurring on these platforms, without forcing victims themselves to police these platforms, and a clear path that educational institutions must follow to identify and prosecute anonymous harassers.”

Yet some experts say that not only would such a requirement raise First Amendment concerns, it would also be difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

“To require universities to police anonymous speech online sets them up for failure, even setting aside the First Amendment implications, which I think are substantial,” Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told Inside Higher Ed.

Creeley noted that the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the right to anonymous speech, adding that while the court allows exceptions for threatening and defamatory statements, “making that determination is beyond the competency of colleges.”

“Universities are in a very difficult place,” agreed technology and legal issues consultant Tracy Mitrano. “They are interested in being sure their campus is a safe place to women and minorities, but they are being asked to control things out of their control.”

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