The Facebook: not just for students

Administrators at other schools disciplining, hiring students based on Web site profiles

Thursday, November 3, 2005

When Cameron Walker got a handwritten note in late September from the president of his college asking for a meeting, he did not think much of it at first. After all, the Fisher College sophomore was president of the Student Government Association, and he figured that the college president just wanted to chat about the upcoming school year.

“I thought I was meeting with him to tackle issues of the SGA,” Walker said.

But when he showed up at the president’s office, he found three very upset college administrators – the president, the dean of students and the chief of campus police – waiting for him. Walker was in big trouble. The reason? He had joined a controversial group on Facebook, the popular online student directory, and administrators at Fisher had seen it.

“I had no idea that administrators could see my Facebook profile,” Walker said. “I joined that group on the assumption that administrators were not going to read that Web page. I was so naive.”

The day after the meeting, Walker was expelled from Fisher College – the first time a student has been expelled from a college for Facebook-related activities since the Web site’s inception in 2004, a Facebook official said.

While Walker’s case may be the only one of its kind, other recent incidents have raised questions about student privacy on Last month, the Boston Globe reported that Brandeis University administrators review student profiles on the Web site before hiring them for campus jobs. The Syracuse University Daily Orange reported that a junior running for student government was disqualified for campaigning on Facebook before the official start date. The University of California, Santa Barbara’s student newspaper, the Daily Nexus, said officials warned students living on campus that they could be disciplined based on photographs and information they post on the Web site.

Just this Wednesday, four Northern Kentucky students received University Code of Conduct violations based on pictures posted on Facebook that showed them drinking, according to the NKU student newspaper.

All this begs the question: Who is looking at Brown students’ Facebook accounts?

Fisher College

Earlier in September, Walker and his friends at Fisher College, a private liberal arts college in Boston’s Back Bay, were fuming over the actions of one campus police sergeant. Walker said the sergeant was harassing students and, in particular, was provoking students while they were drunk in order to get them into situations where an arrest could be made.

In response, Kurt Vachon, one of Walker’s friends, started a Facebook group titled “Students against (name of sergeant),” which Walker joined as an “officer.” Walker said he tried to start a petition to get the officer kicked out of Fisher, but other than that, the whole Facebook group “was a joke.”

“My officer title was ‘Duke of Propaganda’ … and Kurt’s title was ‘King for Life,’ ” Walker said.

But apparently Fisher administrators did not see the humor in the group. After looking at the Facebook group on a tip from a student, they called Walker in for a meeting. The next day, Walker was sent a letter informing him of his expulsion from the college. Vachon was expelled as well.

“Cameron was found in violation of the Student Code of Conduct,” said John Mc-Laughlin, spokesman for Fisher College. The expulsion letter, provided to The Herald by Walker, stated that he had committed a “serious violation” by violating the harassment policy and computer policy.

Walker said he violated the college rules and that it was “stupid” of him to join the Facebook group, but he felt Fisher administrators were overreacting.

“I had bad judgment, but I did not deserve to be expelled,” Walker said. “I clarified that the Facebook group was a joke … but (Fisher administrators) chose to take it seriously anyway. They chose to make it an issue when it didn’t really have to be.”

For now, the 19-year-old said he is back at his home in Nahant, Mass., trying to piece his life back together. He is looking to continue his college education and is applying to several New England colleges.

“I had a plan for my life, and my plan is on hold now because of a choice I made,” he said.

In addition, he is looking into pursuing legal action against Fisher for what he said are violations of his First Amendment rights. He said some lawyers whom he spoke to said he had a legitimate case. He has asked for legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but he has not heard from them yet.

“I feel that it’s just sort of ridiculous for (Fisher administrators) to pass judgment on me for what I posted as a comment on a public domain Web site,” Walker said.

Walker said the only thing he wants to gain by legal action is the removal of his expulsion from his record – he has no plans to return to Fisher.

For now, he said students should be careful about what goes on their profile.

“Watch which groups you’re members of, watch what you say in groups and watch what people post on your profile,” Walker said. “There’s no privacy – no one is safe.”


Walker’s expulsion from Fisher raised questions about the legality of college administrators disciplining students based on information from Facebook. For example, Walker said he did not even know that college administrators could log on.

Chris Hughes, spokesman for Facebook, said that while the Web site was created for students, there is nothing that prohibits college faculty and administrators from using the site.

“They have the legal right to use it because it is a public forum,” he said.

Hughes said Facebook officials haven’t considered making the site student-only – the only requirement for membership is a school e-mail address, which faculty members and administrators can have.

Hughes said it seems to be legal for college administrators to look on Facebook profiles for illegal activities such as underage drinking or illegal drug use. But, he added, “that wasn’t our first intention for creating the Facebook.”

John Palfrey, lecturer and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said he had no reason to believe that what Fisher administrators did in Walker’s case was illegal.

“You’re writing a public diary,” Palfrey said. “The presumption is that anybody can see it. It’s not that hard to get into the Facebook, no matter who you are.”

Palfrey said Fisher administrators’ actions were akin to those of a police officer investigating a crime. If the officer had a search warrant and was investigating a crime and saw some drug paraphernalia lying in plain sight, that could be used against the suspect.

Likewise, if the officer had suspicions of criminal behavior, he or she could log onto public spaces, such as Facebook, to look for evidence.

Palfrey said Facebook’s membership requirement does not make it a private forum.

That one only needs a school e-mail address to join Facebook “sets a very, very low bar” for membership, Palfrey said. “If you believe that because you have to log into (Facebook) in some fashion that protects you from anybody seeing what’s on your profile, that’s a false sense of security.”

Is your future employer Facebooking you?

According to a September Boston Globe article, Brandeis University administrators shocked students attending an hour-long Facebook safety seminar when they said that some Brandeis administrators had begun reading Facebook profiles before hiring applicants for campus positions.

But Dennis Nealon, director of media relations at Brandeis, said the claim was untrue.

“There is no use of Facebook stuff (in the job application process),” Nealon said. “Whoever might have mentioned it was certainly speaking for themselves and not their university. The university would not condone that sort of process.”

Nevertheless, the Globe article pointed out the possibility that Facebook may be used, if not now, then in the future, as part of a screening process for job candidates or graduate school applicants.

“The question is whether a Facebook profile accurately represents a job applicant,” Facebook spokesman Hughes said.

“It’s all about common sense,” Palfrey said. “You should presume that anybody from whom you want something in the future could see the profile. That person could be an employer, graduate school board member or a current professor. If you put something on your profile that you wouldn’t want them to see, then you’re making a huge mistake.”

Brown admins on Facebook

Though Facebook lists 102 faculty profiles and 133 staff profiles at Brown, it is safe to assume that many are not actual members of the Brown community. For example, actor Vin Diesel and “Austin Powers” character Dr. Evil are listed as faculty members, although a search on the University directory indicate that neither has an affiliation with the University.

But several actual key Brown administrators are listed on the Facebook directory. These include Terry Addison, associate dean for judicial affairs; Margaret Klawunn, associate vice president of campus life and dean for student life; Linda Welsh, a psychotherapist at psychological services; and three members of the Department of Public Safety, including Capt. Emil Fioravanti.

Addison, whose office is in charge of disciplinary actions at Brown, said he has used Facebook in the past only to look for a picture to find out “what one of our students looked like.”

“I’m not really interested in reading what students may have listed or what chat forums they are in,” Addison said.

Klawunn said she used her Facebook membership to find contact information for students.

“A student told me that many cell phone numbers are posted there,” Klawunn wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Fioravanti said DPS does not use Facebook regularly to check student profiles, but declined to say more.

Welsh said she joined Facebook because as a psychotherapist, it is interesting to understand student trends.

John Stein, lecturer in neuroscience, is one of the few actual faculty members to have a Facebook profile with a picture and interests listed. Stein said he, along with Professor of Biology and fellow instructor of BI 20: “The Foundation of Living Systems” Ken Miller, joined Facebook in order to be linked to every student who takes the course. Stein said he primarily uses Facebook to find a picture of a student who has e-mailed him because the courses he teaches are so large.

“I’ll have student e-mail me, and if I can’t remember that student, I’ll go on the Facebook to have a picture to match that name or e-mail address,” Stein said. He said this was especially helpful for students who may not be in his courses anymore but ask him for recommendations a year later.

Jeremy Welland ’08, who took BI 20 last year, said Miller would incorporate part of Facebook into each class.

“Miller would take the Facebook pictures of a couple of random people in the class and put them at the end of his Powerpoint presentations,” Whelland said. “Those that were selected would then be asked questions related to the material. I’m pretty sure he offered small prizes for people who got the questions right.”

Brown students react

Despite recent questions about student privacy on Facebook, two students at Brown said they are not worried about their own accounts.

Raf Flores ’08, who describes himself as a “neurotic” Facebook user, has 681 Facebook friends and said he logs onto the Web site every day as a form of procrastination.

“It’s kind of addicting,” he said.

Flores said he is aware that faculty and administrators can join Facebook and sees no problem with it.

“I encourage professors to be on the Facebook because it shows that they’re not just faculty, that they’re people too, with interests, with families, with lives outside their classes,” Flores said.

But he feels that it would be “unjust and unfair” for administrators to use the Web site to incriminate students or for future employers to screen applicants by reading their profiles.

“The Facebook isn’t an accurate depiction of how someone is in an academic or professional setting,” he said. “Sometimes people just use the Facebook as a joke.”

Alicia Ridenour ’06, who describes herself as a casual Facebook user, also thinks that faculty members have the right to be on Facebook.

“I feel that it’s their prerogative as members of the Brown community to be on the Facebook,” she said. “I definitely know professors and members of the staff who use it to create a community.”

Ridenour said she could envision how an administrator’s use of Facebook could make her feel “uncomfortable,” but she said that won’t make her change what she puts on her Facebook profile.

“I don’t put too much information on it anyway,” she said. “But I could see the point that if an administrator were looking at profiles, a student might want to censor themselves.”