Universities leverage social media to silence students' critical comments

When students are not allowed to speak their mind about their school the institution quickly devolves into a propagandist racket.

While social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, market themselves as bastions of free speech and expression, they have equipped universities with tools to censor and blacklist content in an effort to shape public perception of its institutions. This is not only dishonest and misleading, but it is unconstitutional.

The student body knows the universities they attend better than anyone else, and when they are not allowed to speak their mind about their institution, however critical their thoughts may be, the institution quickly devolves into a propagandist racket.

One example of these tools are Facebook’s automated content filters, which gives state institutions the power to hide users’ comments if they “contain words included on Facebook’s undisclosed list of offensive words or the government actor’s customized list of prohibited words.”

But universities do not need access to these built-in tools to silence those who may shed a negative light on their campus. They can manually prune through every comment on their page, picking and choosing which ones to hide from the public. This bars prospective students from learning about a predatory professor or racist organization on campus, among other things.

“Wright State University, for example, deleted comments supporting a faculty strike from its Facebook page, leaving behind a community “forum” that largely (and falsely) appeared supportive of the university’s administration and critical of striking faculty,” according to FIRE, a free speech advocacy group that seeks to root out harmful anti-speech practices at universities.

FIRE conducted a study, where they found that 77.4% of institutions employed a blacklist of prohibited words not disclosed to the public. And since Facebook does not alert commenters when their post has been deleted or hidden from public view, users may never know their thoughts were silenced. This is dangerously negligent if.

Even though Facebook and Twitter are considered private entities, and allow users to tailor their feed any way they like, universities that have an account on these platforms are legally obligated to uphold the First Amendment, without exception.

President Trump’s 2018 lawsuit that decided whether he was allowed to block Twitter users from seeing his content is a perfect example of this.

"This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, 'block; a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States," Judge Buchwald wrote in her decision. "The answer to both questions is no."

"We then proceed to the substance of plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims. We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account—the “interactive space” where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets—are properly analyzed under the 'public forum' doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. In so holding, we reject the defendants’ contentions that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the President’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs."

Colleges and universities need to be held to the same standard as Trump was in 2018—but whose job is it to keep them in check? Facebook and Twitter may proclaim to be the last bastions of free speech, but there is little evidence to support this arbitrary claim.

A solution might involve social media platforms creating in-app tools that prohibit government entities and public institutions from being able to censor or tailor comments and posts. Entities who receive money from taxpayers should not even have the option to censor or blacklist comments from the very people who make it possible for these entities to exist in the first place.

And if this doesn’t work, there is a very good argument to withhold tax dollars from universities in perpetuity, allowing them to pay the price for their unconstitutional behavior.