Universities use social networks to find misbehaving students

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    By Elizabeth Stuart

    Photographs and messages posted on Facebook.com have been getting university students in trouble with university administrators and police who can use their .edu addresses to browse the social network.

    John Brown University recently expelled a student whose Facebook profile indicated he was engaging in homosexual behavior incompatible with the school”s code of conduct.

    Two Louisiana State swimmers were kicked off the team for criticizing their coaches on Facebook.

    At Penn State, police used a photo of students rushing the football field that was posted on Facebook to arrest students.

    These scenarios aren”t one-time occurrences, said Fred Stutzman, who studies Facebook culture and keeps corporations like Google and Yahoo informed on the nuances of the social network.

    “You see one or two students get in trouble a day because of things posted on Facebook,” he said.

    A quick wander through Facebook provides insight on how students at BYU could potentially get in trouble with both the Honor Code and the law.

    Numerous BYU Facebook clubs, organized as forums for students, are based on lewd sexual acts. Other groups – boasting names such as “BYU Pot Dealers,” “Finish your beer, there are sober kids in India,” and “Society of Honor Code Violators” – reveal behavior incongruent with the standards of the stereotypical BYU student.

    The employees in the Honor Code Office are not wired up to the Internet, looking for violations on Facebook, said Steve Baker, director of the Honor Code Office.

    Baker said all the violations investigated by the Honor Code Office involving Facebook were brought to light because other students expressed concern.

    Honor Code violations reported as a result of things seen on Facebook would be investigated just as any other report of misconduct, he said.

    “By looking into it, we would be able to exonerate the student or have the situation reviewed to see what should be done,” he said.

    While Baker has not personally logged on to Facebook as part of an investigation, he said he doesn”t see a problem with the Honor Code Office logging on to help resolve a reported violation.

    “If a violation were reported, there wouldn”t be anything wrong with looking on Facebook to help determine if there was in fact a problem,” he said.

    Arnold Lemmon, director of investigations for BYU University Police, said he doesn”t have qualms about using information taken from Facebook either.

    He said he doesn”t differentiate from evidence obtained from Facebook and other types of evidence.

    “If there”s evidence to be gleaned from Facebook, we will glean it,” he said.

    To keep campus free from crime, University Police must utilize their resources, he said.

    “As law enforcement officials, if we were to ignore valid evidence, whether it came from Facebook or any other source, we would look like a bunch of clowns,” he said.

    The type of crime portrayed on Facebook would also factor into whether University Police would follow up on a lead, Lemmon said.

    “Any time a person may be in danger, we”re going to take a look,” he said.

    Other crimes such as drugs or underage drinking would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, he said.

    Lemmon made it clear, however, that none of his detectives were employed to cross reference BYU student”s names on Facebook or surf the social network looking for crime.

    “I don”t think it”s appropriate,” he said. “And we don”t have time.”

    Although the Honor Code Office and the University Police at BYU are not actively patrolling Facebook, neither were the administrators at most of the other universities where students have been disciplined, expelled and even arrested.

    Facebook-expert Stutzman said the majority of the evidence used by university officials was brought by students.

    “It”s your schoolmate that you … [ticked] off – that”s who”s ratting on you,” he said. “It”s the RA you got in trouble with, who”s getting you in trouble.”

    The mere fact that university administrators have access to students” Facebook profiles is disturbing to some students.

    Johnny Ahn”s Facebook profile used to be colorful – decorated with good-natured comments from friends, references to inside jokes and photographs.

    After Ahn, a senior from California majoring in accounting, heard that university administrators and police could view his profile, he deleted all the messages posted on his site and removed all his photographs.

    All that remains of Ahn”s Facebook identity is a gray-blue question mark, saving the place where an identifying mug shot once smiled.

    “It makes me feel uncomfortable,” Ahn said. “Even though they [university administrators] don”t have anything on me, I wouldn”t want anything to formulate.”

    Ahn said he doesn”t intend to beef up his profile anytime soon.

    “My Facebook might stay lean for quite awhile,” he said.

    While Ahn joined Facebook knowing that people would be looking at his profile, he was under the impression that it was his friends, and other university students, who would look at his personal comments and photographs.

    Facebook was designed with that sense of privacy in mind said Chris Hughs, spokesperson for Facebook.

    Hugh said Facebook was not meant to be a forum for university authorities to police student profiles.

    Facebook advertises privacy controls that allow students to determine, to a certain extent, who can see their profiles, reiterating this feeling of security.

    Even so, Ahn said people post too much information on Facebook, including addresses and cell phone numbers.

    However, not all students feel their privacy is threatened by the administration”s capability to browse Facebook.

    Julie Anderson, a freshman from Kentucky majoring in special education, said she doesn”t have any reservations about University Police and the Honor Code Office viewing her profile or those of other students.

    “If it”s for my safety, that”s fine,” she said.

    Anderson was more concerned that officials would be misled by content posted on Facebook because students aren”t always serious about the things they post there.

    “People are dumb,” she said. “They say all sorts or things on Facebook that they don”t mean 100 percent.”

    When people are serious, however, Anderson said she would consider reporting violations to university officials.

    “It”s a public forum and people should be held accountable for what they say,” she said.

    Ahn disagreed, arguing that there are unwritten rules concerning etiquette on Facebook that would forbid tattling.

    “It”s not my place to be turning people in,” he said. “People can govern themselves.”