By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

When free speech isn’t free

Media Nation was in the midst of a convoluted and boring post this morning when deliverance struck: Firefox encountered a site it didn’t like, leading to an error that caused the program to quit, destroying said post. I think it was a sign.

So let me briefly call your attention to this story in today’s Boston Globe, about Cameron Walker, a Fisher College sophomore who was expelled for posting unflattering information about a police officer on TheFacebook.com, a social-networking site popular among students that has absolutely no affiliation with Fisher.

I’m withholding judgment because, as you’ll see, the ACLU is still investigating. But it sounds like this has the potential to become a major free-speech issue.

That doesn’t mean students shouldn’t be careful about what they choose to reveal about themselves online. Just last week, the Globe published an article on the consequences of being too open on sites such as TheFacebook.com and MySpace.com.

As Walker has learned, anything you say can and will be used against you.

That said, the Fisher College administration owes the community an explanation for why it took such drastic action against what was apparently nothing more than a student’s exercising his free-speech rights.


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10 Comments

  1. Steve

    It seems to me that Fisher College made its explanation in the referenced article – it expelled Cameron Walker for cause, namely violation of its code of conduct.The article doesn’t mention whether Walker was afforded any hearing, and I think that’s wrong (and perhaps violates said “code of conduct” in itself). But if Fisher College followed its published procedures, perhaps the expulsion is justified. (Fisher is a private institution.)I wonder if Fisher or the officer have a case against Walker for libel.This might be a “chilling effect” on free speech, but people must realize that when they write something on the Internet, laws about libel and defamation apply. Anyone who posts anything should familiarize themselves with those laws. This seems to have a pretty good summary.”The Press” seems to enjoy wider latitude, and is protected from libel actions unless “reckless disregard for the truth” is proven. Does “The Press” include Walker? Interesting question. It seems to me that if he is reporting on an incident, then he is “doing journalism” regardless of the forum in which the report is made, and thus maybe he’s entitled to the protections of NYT v Sullivan.Now, about Facebook in general – my wife and I had a discussion with our daughter about the contents of HER facebook entry when she was home a couple of days ago. I won’t share the details, but let’s just say I would think the chilling effect of PARENTS reading the Facebook should be a motivating factor in favor of moderation. Ditto for Instant Messenger profiles and buddy info.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    There may well be liability issues involved here, which is why I’m waiting to see what the ACLU says before I offer a more definitive judgment.However, Times v. Sullivan does not apply to “the press” specifically but, rather, to the level of fault that must be shown to win a libel case. Times v. Sullivan and subsequent decisions determined that a public official or public figure must demonstrate deliberate falsehood or reckless disregard for the truth.If there is a Times v. Sullivan issue here, it’s whether the police officer is a public official for purposes of a libel suit, not whether the student enjoys the rights and protections of “the press.”

  3. Steve

    Thanks for setting me straight about NYT v Sullivan, Dan.

  4. BenC

    Police officers are considered public officials, at least in Massachusetts. See SJC-08117 (2000), Rotkiewicz vs. Sadowsky (a Massachusetts SJC case). In relevant part:”We conclude, because of the broad powers vested in police officers and the great potential for abuse of those powers, as well as police officers’ high visibility within and impact on a community, that police officers, even patrol-level police officers such as the plaintiff, are “public officials” for purposes of defamation.”I don’t know if there’s a federal case, but I suspect the same would hold on the federal level. And in this case the officer was a sergeant, not just a patrolman, which makes it substantially more likely he would be considered a public official.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    But this was a campus police officer, and campus officers generally have fewer powers than municipal or state officers – and, thus, fewer of the characteristics of a public official.These things tend to get resolved on a case-by-case basis. I know of a very prominent libel suit in which a federal judge ruled that an assistant district attorney was a private figure. Believe it or not.

  6. Anonymous

    Ummm….One question for you guys…Why is the discussion getting caught up in legalistic mumbojumbo and parsing what is what and what qualifies and so on???Have you guys READ actually what this young punk wrote?? About setting a law and order officer. About ‘eliminating him’???Now This officer might be a pain in the neck, but how is it proper or a sign of good upbringing or good citizenry to drag an officer of the law like this.The officers are duputized and have powers of police to perform their duties. I have not seen one person yet condemn what this student wrote. There is a lot of garbage or even criminal intent that could be described as First Amendement protected speech, but it isn’t because it isn’t decent or legal or even bring actual harm onto other people.Any fool can stand on a corner and call for an outrageous act but it wouldn’t matter until others heeded the call. He is entitiled to say anything he wants, but if his employer or college objects to it, thinks there is harm anticipated from it or een goes against their wirtten rules, then why shouldn’t they expel him??As a company or organization owner, if I don’t like your pink socks, I can fire you. If I don’t like something you said, I can fire you. Speak all you want, you still have to be bound by a set of rules. If you don’t agree, then that’s fine. I don’t have to suffer it. You can go out an set up your won organization and play with your own rules. Fisher is right here. I might add, free to do as it pleases as long as it does not expel students for held views. This was beyond views.Students should have channeled their concern for potential harm BY the officers more propely and not through smear and conspiracy in a public forum.Why aren’t we teaching kids what is right and worng, accountability and respect for the Law and its officers?So in essence, this is not a pure free-speech issue. We have to discern what really qualifies as a true free-speech matter before we spout off. This is the stuff that makes us look like a joke in the nation and serves as fodder for Morons that truely want to regulate TRUE Free Speech matters like Loud-Bullhorn Bill O’Reilly.Let’s keep a perspective here.N.

  7. BenC

    Without getting into either the merits or the legality of the expulsion itself (from what little I know of such things, I don’t see any reason the expulsion would be illegal), it sounds to me like N. is misinterpreting the “eliminate” comment. Based only on the Globe story, it sounds like the student wanted to get him off the job, not off this mortal coil. Although perhaps further context would disprove me.Separately, let’s remember that this is a student we’re talking about here. I thought the point of going to college was to make these kinds of stupid mistakes. I don’t think anyone’s defending the statements themselves, but comments that might be a firing offense for a responsible adult need to be looked at differently in the context of a college student. Yes, he’s legally an adult, and yes, there should be limits on the leeway we grant. Based on context, I’m willing to be convinced that this exceeds that leeway. But let’s not forget who we’re talking about here.

  8. Anonymous

    1- I agree with you it does not sound like ‘eliminate’ was meant by this punk to mean actually harming him. But even a kid shoud not lightly be talking about elbowing someone out of his duty , for doing his job if he happens to not like the guy. This kid and you are taking it too lightly.2- Even if he does not mean ‘eliminate’ in the literal sense, someone COULD interpret that as is and could set up some of those dangerous ‘JackA$$’ stinits for him that could really hurt him for a few cheap giggles.If this kid said anything close to ‘eliminate’ to a federal employee face to face or in direct correspondence or at an airport checkpoint, he would be carted off and charged with a serious offense.Can you imagine someone calling in a hoax with a slight inference of violence or targeting for harrassment to the authorities without merit?? That is a serious offense. And that certainly doesn’t fall under protected speech but rather irresponsible foolish one.IO am amazed people still take lightly what this kid wrote.I am not saying he should be hanged or jailed for it given the mild seriousness of this college matter, but he certainly shouldn’t be protected and justified.Expulsion is still fair in my mind.And one advice, please tell your kids not to joke with this stuff and make them more aware and responsible about things like this. These spoiled kids take so many things lightly and don’t see harm in many things that are not trivial. Because God forbid rich daddy or mommy scold his kid or alienate them or not be his friend anymore or be ‘judgemental or be too harsh and tell him what to do and not do. Because that would be too’old-fashioned, outdated and just so not ‘coool’This is why we still have hoaxes and prank calls, because when it happens we minimize it and prepare to protect it as ‘free speech’Make a distinction in your heads, people. MAKE A D@MN DISTINCTION!N.

  9. mike_b1

    N.Why are you singling out the wealthy?

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