Sam Houston State social media policy sparks controversial protest

TEXAS — SamHouston State University’s recent attempt to corral school-affiliated socialmedia pages was met with concern over students’ free speech rights, spawningcontroversial protests on campus and a Wednesday “Liberty in Peril” event.

The Southeast Texas school started rolling out in September itsSocial Media Universe,a portal to department and student organization social media pages that haveapplied for inclusion on the site. But proposed policies accompanying theportal have raised concern among students over broad language that could removesome control from those who the run organization pages.

According to the proposed policy,groups applying for inclusion in the portal must disclose to universitymarketing staff the login and password information for social media sites suchas Facebook and Twitter. The university reserves the right to “edit and deletecontent as appropriate,” which has caught the attention of students who wouldbe affected.

Several student leaders at SHSU had reservations about thedocument, including Cristan Shamburger, president of the Bearcat Democratsgroup.

Shamburger specifically objected to language in theguidelines that give the university the right to add new restrictions “withoutreservation or obligation to defend the action.”

“I just felt it doesn’t give the students a lot of freedom,”she said.

But the concern hasn’t gone unnoticed by those responsiblefor the Social Media Universe.

Kristina Ruiz, associate vice president of marketing andcommunication, was tasked with uniting different university-affiliated socialmedia sites about a year ago. She stressed work on the policy is ongoing and asmall part of a larger program.

Ruiz said the soft launch of the Social Media Universeprompted criticism and “a lot of misconception,” adding the proposed policy isjust that: proposed. Despite wording in the policy, Ruiz said student groupsare not required to join the site. The draft document currently has severalsteps to overcome before the university can formally adopt it.

Ruiz is forming a committee to address concerns from delegatesof the faculty senate, student government and various colleges at the school.She said she would also like someone with “credentialed experience in freespeech to sit on the committee.”

Until a formal document is finalized and approved, Ruiz saidthe only policy that governs social media pages are the ones people agree towhen signing up for pages on Twitter or Facebook.

“Regardless of what kind of policies we put in place, thatwill always be default,” she said.

But the outcry and concern over the policy has not died downafter flaring up last month. Morgan Freeman, president of the political studentgroup SHSU Lovers of Liberty, helped organize a “free speech wall” event inresponse to the social media policy. She said the policy would “give the administration the potential to do whatever they want and edit our content.”

Freeman got approval from the school for the protest, whichallowed students to write whatever they wanted on a paper banner in a buildingon campus.

In an ironic twist, a math professor objected to the phrase“Fuck Obama” and took matters into his own hands by removing the offending wordfrom the paper sign using a box cutter. The students called the police at theadvice of the dean because of a potential weapon on campus, and according to anarticle in the Houstonian studentnewspaper,police said the profanity on the wall qualified as disorderly conduct becausethe professor was offended.

University Police Chief James Fitch gave Freeman and theorganizers three options.

“They said we could either cover up the offensive stuff, putnew paper and tell people they couldn’t write that kind of stuff or take itdown,” she said. Freeman decided to take down the sign because the F-word waswritten all over the banner.

Shamburger, whose organization co-sponsored the event, saidthe controversy was typical of the school.

“That’s the kind of thing that happens a lot at ouruniversity,” she said. “We have a big administration who treats us like wedon’t have a voice and shouldn’t have a voice.”

A second free speech wall protest capitalized on the newcontroversy — to prove a point, any writing that organizers felt could lead tomore trouble with the police would be taped over with duct tape.

“It was actually really boring, which I feel like kind ofproved our point about what happens when you stifle free speech,” she said. “Alot of people wrote stuff like, ‘I don’t know what to write because I can’twrite what I want,’ or ‘This is stupid.’”

The dispute caught the attention of the Foundation forIndividual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based organization thatadvocates for free speech on college campuses. FIRE wrote a letter of concern toPresident Dana L. Gibson, who responded the incident was “under investigation.”SHSU Lovers of Liberty and FIRE are hosting the seminar “Free Speech on Campus:Liberty in Peril” tonight on campus.

Shamburger, who is also a senator in student government,said there have been repercussions following the free speech wall controversy.At a debate for city council candidates sponsored by student government, organizerswere told a campus police officer was supposed to be present as a result of theprotest.

Despite the uproar in the past weeks, Ruiz said the goal ofthe Social Media Universe and the draft policy isn’t to police content onpages, adding the responsibility to manage sites remains with the originalstudents or staff who currently do.

“Trying to control that conversation makes it a veryone-sided conversation,” Ruiz said. “The university is about diverse opinions,diverse background.”

Shamburger said President Gibson was scheduled to attend aforum in early November to further discuss the proposed policy, as there isstill a lot of concern among students.

“I think what everyone is fired up about is that they canessentially take off whatever they want,” she said. “We don’t want to get ridof the policy altogether because I think everyone can agree there’s a need forit and it was created with good intentions, but the wording and some of thepolicies don’t make sense.”