Digital rights non-profit argues against banning anonymous speech platforms like Yik Yak

The debate taking place on college campuses across the country about the merits of anonymous social media speech — which can often veer into racist, sexist or otherwise offensive remarks, but is still mostly protected by the First Amendment — is now playing out before the U.S. Department of Education.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, recently sent a letter to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights arguing against banning anonymous online speech platforms, such as Yik Yak, on college campuses.

The letter, sent Jan. 13, is in response to another letter sent by 72 feminist and civil rights organizations in October that called on the Office of Civil Rights to provide guidance on how to address sex- and race-based harassment on Yik Yak and other anonymous speech platforms. That letter argues that colleges and universities have a responsibility to protect students from anonymous harassment under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education.

EFF’s letter, meanwhile, argues that while threats and statutory harassment must be taken seriously, the banning of anonymous speech platforms would be unconstitutional.

“As institutions protect the civil rights of students to be free from unlawful harassment and true threats, they must also protect students’ right to free speech,” the letter stated.

The letter argues that many people — including those looking to further racial and gender equality — use anonymous speech without fear of retaliation for their speech. According to the letter, actions to stop anonymous speech are often barriers to marginalized groups.

“Time and again, in the face of outright censorship or efforts to crack down on free expression, online platforms have proven invaluable for helping groups around the world meet, exchange ideas, and demand political change in ways that are sometimes impossible to do offline,” the letter said.

The EFF letter pointed to a Twitter account at the University of Southern California run by an anonymous group of students that maps the location of sexual assaults on campus. In another case, students at Guilford College in North Carolina used an anonymous online form to receive “testimonials and reports of racial violence.”

New York’s Utica College and Norwich University in Vermont have already taken action against Yik Yak and banned the site from their wi-fi networks. The summer/spring edition of the Student Press Law Center’s Report magazine took a look at the effects of Yik Yak and how students and school administrators alike respond to negative comments posted on the anonymous speech site.

While EFF’s letter condemns barring anonymous speech sites, the group acknowledged the First Amendment does not support harassment or true treats and encouraged institutions to investigate and discipline the crimes when they appear.

The letter lists a number of recommendations that could be used to address threats and harassment without removing the platform for anonymous speech, including using existing laws to investigate harassment and true threats.

The two letters come after the Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation in October into allegations of sexual harassment on Yik Yak at the University of Mary Washington.

The complaint, initially filed in May 2015, alleges the university failed to respond to complaints of sexual harassment on social media and subjected students to a hostile sexual environment, according to the notificataion letter from the office. The complaint also alleges the university retaliated against the complaint by issuing a “disparaging” public letter acknowledging a complaint had been filed with the office.