Should Universities have access to a student-athlete’s Twitter account?

It turns out Yuri Wright was only the beginning of NCAA student-athlete related social media stories. A recent bill was introduced to the Maryland State legislature as Senate Bill 434 that seeks to prohibit institutions from “requiring a student or an applicant for admission to provide access to a personal account or service through an electronic communications device.” While the bill will apply to all students, its primary focus is student-athletes, particularly of schools with high profile athletic programs.

Brad Shear, a lawyer from Washington, DC, and big proponent of the bill, believes this bill protects free speech and privacy rights that student-athletes have under the constitution. According to Shear, these bills are actually a blessing for schools as well, since most schools with social media policies, like the University of North Carolina, are creating policies that are unconstitutional.  Says Shear, “Now is the time to rectify the situation before schools are left with tremendous legal bills defending unconstitutional policies and tort judgments for negligence.” Shear provides several other excellent examples of why institutions will benefit from this bill, but I won’t go into detail about those here. Rather, you should pay his blog a visit and read his post on the matter in its entirety.

I understand where schools are coming from when creating these policies. For schools with large, profitable athletic programs, they are looking to protect themselves as a brand against student-athletes that speak out of line on what has become a fast-moving public medium. In fact, if you read the UNC social media policy for student-athletes, you can see their stance.

From the official UNC student-athlete social media policy: “…playing and competing for The University of North Carolina is a privilege, not a right. As a student-athlete, you represent the University and you are expected to portray yourself, your team, and the University in a positive manner at all times.”

UNC also gives students warnings about: everything posted being public, followers becoming fans or friends for the wrong reasons, fans stalking athletes based on check-ins and future employers (like professional sports organizations) judging players on the content they post. These warnings are well intended, and praise should be given to North Carolina officials for forcing students to read and be responsible to the dangers of these platforms.

Where the University of North Carolina erred, and where Maryland Senate Bill 434 seeks to rectify the situation, is in this sentence, from the Monitoring and Consequences portion of the UNC policy: “Each team must identify at least one coach or administrator who is responsible for having access to (emphasis added) and regularly monitoring the content of team members’ social networking sites and postings…”

It is this policy, where a team official is required to have access to an athlete’s social media account, which breaks the privacy rights of the student. What is confusing about this policy, even more so than the blatant privacy rights issue, is why a school feels having access to an account gives them an advantage in keeping negative comments from reaching the public. To demonstrate, let’s look at Yuri Wright’s situation again. Wright removed the racist and sexually charged tweets after realizing they had caused a stir, but his actions were too late. The tweets were still obtainable to those who had Twitter open and could go back in their timeline to find the tweets.

Let’s say the University of North Carolina noticed, by following a student on Twitter, that a student-athlete had tweeted something negative or inappropriate. By having access to that student’s account, they could go into the account and delete the tweet, but it wouldn’t matter. That tweet would still be public, would still be saved, and would still become a story if the content of the tweet warranted it.

What has UNC really accomplished by logging into the student’s account? Sure, they’ve closed the window of publicity a bit, but they haven’t shut it completely. With Twitter, and most other social media networks, that window can never be completely shut.

Maryland Senate Bill 434 has a change to pass statewide and set a model for nationwide adoption. It will take a great step towards protecting student privacy rights, but will also protect universities from themselves.

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  1. In a word, no. If the account in question is private and has no connection to an institution other than the owner of the the account, there is no need for the institution to have access.

    Here’s an idea. Recruit people who won’t do dumb stuff, spell out to them what exactly “dumb stuff” means. and punish those who do “dumb stuff.”

    Problem solved, and without going all Stalin about it.

  2. J-Dub, you know as much as I do that schools care about talent first and foremost, and then will handle the baggage that comes with that talent later.

    What I don’t understand is how these social media policies made it through a University’s legal team in the first place.

  3. Sad, but true…on both counts.


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