University lifts Facebook ban for student athletes

OHIO — KentState University has reversed an order that would have required all studentathletes at the school to delete their profiles by Aug.1.

University Athletics Director Laing Kennedy said safety concernsprompted him to tell student athletes in May that they would no longer beallowed to access Facebook, a social networking Web site. In a reversal of thatdecision, Kennedy said now student athletes will be permitted to use the site,but they must limit public access to their personal profiles by allowing onlythose that they know to view them.

In addition to requiring athletesto block outsiders from viewing their profiles, the students also must allowtheir coaches and other academic counselors to access and monitor their personalprofiles. Kennedy said this is to ensure that each student is complying with theuniversity’s “code of expected behavior” forathletes.

“It’s like a contract whereupon when we grantan athlete financial aid, you agree to go to class, you agree to completeassignments, you agree to attend team meetings, you agree to be a good citizenand a positive spokesperson for the university and to represent the universityat the highest order,” Kennedy said.

Online actions that mightbe considered breaking the code of expected behavior, Kennedy said, couldinclude posting “provocative” pictures or making excessivereferences to partying.

Kennedy said the original decision to barathletes from using Facebook came after officials in the athletics departmentlearned that a female student athlete was “inappropriatelycontacted” by someone who found her personal information on her Facebookprofile. But some First Amendment advocates say concerns for student safetystill do not give school officials the right to control what students doonline.

“We’re talk about adults here, young adults, yes,but adults,” said Gary Daniels, litigation coordinator for the AmericanCivil Liberties Union of Ohio. “They don’t need theuniversity’s help or assistance to decide who to talk to. It’sunwarranted and unwelcomed instruction and oversight from theschool.”

If the students know that coaches and others aremonitoring their profiles, Daniels said, it might cause a “chillingeffect” on their speech, because it could inhibit them from speaking outonline about controversial issues.

“What if they wanted tobadmouth the university as a whole, or they wanted to say negative things aboutthe team, or how the team is performing or how the coach is performing?”

Daniels said. “Or what if they had other controversial sentiments andwanted to say something having to do with immigration, or the war in Iraq, orabout abortion or religion? Would they be less inclined to do this, knowing thatthe university is observing what they say and may take action againstthem?”

Daniels said the fact that the student athletes will berequired to privatize their profiles also raises some First Amendment concerns.

“I don’t see it as essentially any different than theuniversity trying to regulate in some form or another who they’re talkingto in person,” Daniels said. “The only difference between theuniversity controlling an athlete talking to someone on the street and someonein cyberspace is that there is a computer involved.”

Kennedysaid the university respects the idea that Facebook can be a valid tool forstudents to use to communicate.

“For example, one of ourmen’s basketball players … on he has a picture of our teamcelebrating the Mid-American Conference Championship, he has a picture ofhimself helping cut down the net, he has a picture of his mother. That’snot a problem,” Kennedy said. “We should be in a position to allowthat kind of communication.”

Kennedy said he has not heard anynegative reaction from the athletes about restricting their Facebook profiles,although there has been some criticism from within the university community, aswell as some outside institutions. However, he said the decision to change theplan was not a result of community backlash, but instead of a “diligentreview” of the code of expected behavior along with input from staff andother academiccounselors.