[Updated 22 October: See response to this topic from Ohio State's Ted Hattemer in the comments.]
The October 2009 issue of CASE CURRENTS magazine was sure to make it into this blog. But this posting isn't about what I thought I'd be writing about.
I was ready to launch a rant about whether private label social networks are a good investment for cash-strapped under-staffed alumni operations (answer: No). Then I noticed the informative article about reputation management by Kim Fernandez (Operation Reputation: How to manage and protect your institution's online image, p. 32. CASE member log in required for online access). This is a good resource for educational institutions navigating the sometimes turbulent waters of unmoderated online discussions.
The two paragraphs that caught my attention were about Ohio State University's reaction last spring when a student questioned university president Gordon Gee's membership on the board of an energy company. The company was under scrutiny for questionable environmental practices. Rather than ignore the question, answer the question, or thank the student for participating in the discussion, university officials deleted the question and disabled the comments function on that page.
A few days later, after some negative publicity, the school reinstated the commenting capability on its Facebook Page. I recently presented this as an example of a school that "learned how social media work, and how to live with the uncertainties of Web 2.0." I believed – or rather, I assumed – that OSU's decision resulted from a thoughtful understanding of the new landscape we face, and an awareness that someone who complains or challenges the school is an engaged constituent. The most important thing, I explained, is not whether they agree with everything the school does, it's that they care enough to participate in the discussion.
But it turns out I was wrong about OSU's reasons for reinstating Facebook fans' ability to leave comments.
In CURRENTS I read that
Ted Hattemer, director of new media at the university, says the policy reversal boiled down to a free-speech issue. 'What we found is that...Ohio State property has the requirement of meeting a basic freedom of speech. We quickly reversed the decision [to remove the post] once we figured that out, thanks to good advice from our legal affairs departments.'
I'm all for free speech, but that's not what this is about. Making this decision on the basis of a legal opinion makes OSU technically correct, but reveals a lack of awareness as to why "free speech" is important in online forums.
Students, alumni and friends expect to be heard because they can be heard – not because a lawyer said it's OK for them to be heard.
The silver lining may be that the next time a well-intentioned senior administrator asks of your Facebook Page, "But what if a student criticizes us?" you can say that it's not a problem: OSU's new legal precedent - finally - allows people to use the internet to express their opinions.