social media censorshipShould college athletes suffer a penalty if they make a reference to illegal drug use on Facebook?

When does an athlete’s tweet cross the line from confident and playful trash-talk to unsportsmanlike conduct?

How much should colleges – which, after all, are dedicated to instilling the values of academic freedom – monitor and discipline athletes for what they post to social media accounts? Even more troubling, who decides what is acceptable?

While colleges and universities are not alone in facing thorny social media issues, their traditional commitment to free speech and academic freedom puts them in a uniquely challenging situation. Recent news reported by the Courier-Journal in Louisville has put a spotlight on a new approach some colleges are using.

The University of Louisville and University of Kentucky are both requiring some of their student-athletes to grant permission to have monitoring software installed on their social media accounts as a condition of participating in intercollegiate athletics. (Interestingly, the University of Louisville leaves the decision to require this software to each individual head coach, so it is not mandatory in certain sports. The University of Kentucky requires it of all athletes, according to the Courier-Journal).

The software adds a more formal aspect to monitoring and is potentially troubling as it “flags” certain words. If one of the questionable words appears in a player tweet or other social media post, a coach or other selected monitor is sent a message alerting them to a potential problem.

Reportedly, the list of words include many that can have innocent meanings, including nicknames for drugs and words like “fight” that depend on the context for their meaning. Included on the original list of flagged words at the University of Kentucky were “Arab” and “Muslim.” (This policy changed after the newspaper asked about it).

Multiple services have sprung up to provide this type of software. Centrix Social, UDiligence, and Varsity Monitor all have contracted with major universities to automate monitoring. The omnipresent, automatic nature of the monitoring combined with a list of questionable words makes for an uneasy combination.

Advocates for privacy rights and free speech are not happy with this trend. In early May, Maryland put a social media privacy law in place that forbids employers from asking for account usernames and passwords of employees or potential hires. However, it left out a provision that would have made it illegal for athletic department’s to use monitoring software on student-athlete accounts.

The NCAA at first seemed to advocate monitoring but has recently backed off. After stating in the summer of 2011 that the University of North Carolina should have monitored athlete accounts for evidence of program violations, the body issued a ruling in March of this year that colleges are not required to monitor social media accounts.

So what is the right approach? Those that defend the use of software often argue that student-athletes don’t always think through how posting certain types of information on social media accounts can affect their lives now and into the future. It is not uncommon for employers to check out social media accounts before making a hiring decision.  For monitoring advocates, posting questionable material can lead to teachable moments that help students learn responsible online citizenship and how to protect their reputations.

How about a middle ground that avoids the extremes of monitoring, “flagged” word lists, and all the baggage that comes with it?  The NCAA or individual schools could certainly put together an online learning program or short seminar on responsible online citizenship and the importance of maintaining a good reputation on the web. (Come to think of it, most college students could use this education!).

Coaches could be encouraged to informally monitor public social media accounts without infringing on privacy. Penalties for behavior that reflects poorly on their team can and should be made clear.

Taking these sensible steps gives a sense of balance and responsibility while preserving privacy and acknowledging free speech concerns.

What do you think…… Which schools and athletes are getting it right and which are social media idiots?