Utah State faces calls to change 'unconstitutional' social media policy

After students who were critical of USU were blocked from the school's official Twitter account, a free speech organization wrote a letter to the school requesting them to drop the unconstitutional social media policy.

The social media guidelines outlined by USU’s Facebook page allow the school to block students based on “profanity” or “personal attacks.”

Utah State University President Noelle E. Cockett received a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on January 28, stating that the school’s social media guidelines are unconstitutional.

The letter from the non-profit organization stated that “FIRE is concerned about the state of freedom of expression at Utah State University (USU) in light of a report that administrators blocked students on Twitter, citing the university’s ‘social media policy.’ This censorship departs from USU’s obligations as a public university bound by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression.”

In December 2020, USU had its semi-annual “Gripe Night,” as reported by The Utah Statesman, in which students used the hashtag #USUgripe on Twitter to make the school aware of complaints or concerns. 

On December 9, 2020, one student tweeted using the hashtag to express his dissatisfaction with the fact that USU’s library does not have an entrance at the back of the building. 

[RELATED: Free speech advocate blasts Syracuse University’s ‘PC campus culture’]

The official Utah State University account replied to this tweet with “Philosophical question: What if the entrance IS a back door, and there simply is no front door?” A second student, Grant Bess, replied to the school expressing frustration with its response. 

He said “doesn’t change anything you bastards... .” The school responded to Bess with “Keep it civil please, Grant.” 

Bess then responded to the school again, and without warning the USU account blocked him on Twitter. According to Bess’s tweet just 20 minutes later, he was then blocked by the official Twitter account. USU’s public information officer, Emilie Wheeler, told The Statesman that “USU urging Bess to ‘keep it civil’ acted as a warning before blocking him.”

[RELATED: Reagan-appointed judge revives free speech lawsuit against UT-Austin]

According to USU’s Social Media Disclaimer the “goal is to provide a place to express and honor the diverse voices of our university. In order to achieve that end, we reserve the right to delete off-topic posts which may include spam, solicitations, comments irrelevant to USU operations, commercial comments, as well as comments that contain Private Sensitive Information (PSI).”

The “About” section of USU’s Facebook page contains a variation of the university’s Social Media Guidelines, with added categories of prohibited speech: “In order to achieve that end, we reserve the right to delete posts/comments and block accounts containing profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, electronic harassment, or privacy violations. Your posts should always be relevant to USU.”  

According to FIRE’s letter “In recent years, a wide range of courts across the country have held government actors’ social media sites to be public forums subject to First Amendment limitations. These decisions clearly establish that the interactive components of USU’s social media accounts are public forums.” 

The United States Court of Appeals case, Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia Univ. v. Trump, stated that “social media is entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other forms of media.” 

It reasoned that “aspects of” a Facebook page “bear the hallmarks of a public forum.”

When asked by Campus Reform if the university will update or alter its social media guidelines, University Associate Vice President for Strategic Communications Amanda DeRito responded by stating, “free speech is the foundation of higher education and paramount to innovation,” and that  “reviewing and clarifying our rules of engagement will be a part of finalizing the policy.”

FIRE’s letter concluded by stating, “USU may remedy this iteration of its policy by replacing it with the version already set forth on its own website, which - while imperfect - lacks the operative policy’s most troubling aspects, such as prohibitions on ‘profanity’ or ‘personal attacks.’ We would be pleased to work with USU on evaluating and revising its social media policies… in order to better protect students’ rights to free expression, while meeting USU’s needs.” 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @abbyystreetman