Student On Probation For Expressing A Negative Opinion About An Instructor On Facebook

from the misconduct-means-saying-something-we-don't-like dept

A student at the University of Calgary was put on academic probation for making the following post on a group titled, “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with [instructor’s name]:”

[Instructor’s name] IS NO LONGER TEACHING ANY COURSES AT THE U OF C!!!!! Remember when she told us she was a long-term prof? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn’t able to do it .. lucky us. Well anyways I think we should all congratulate ourselves for leaving a [instructor’s name]-free legacy for future [law and society] students.

It’s pretty hard to see how this isn’t just an expression of opinion, but the university thinks it qualifies as non-academic misconduct. The problem is, it’s not at all clear how. The only part of the definition that doesn’t involve injury, damage or theft is “conduct which seriously disrupts the lawful educational and related activities of other students and/or University staff.” It’s hard to see how a Facebook post of this nature “seriously disrupts” much of anything (until someone gets put on probation and the Streisand Effect kicks in). But there’s a nice little “includes but is not limited to” that makes the definition non-exhaustive, which is likely what university officials are relying on. You’d think that other instances of misconduct would be similar (hurting people, breaking stuff, stealing, “serious disruptions”), but apparently “expressions of opinion that we don’t like” can qualify…

A computer science professor interviewed said the posts “can be compared to putting up notices all over the university campus” (quoting the article, not the prof). But this is more like putting up a notice off campus (albeit in public). It may not have been nice, but it’s pretty troubling that a student’s right to express an opinion (free speech much?) on a third-party site is overridden without a clear policy violation.

I’ve had direct experience with this sort of thing. A couple years ago, friends of mine at another university were sent ominous emails and hauled into their department head’s office over some comments about a professor on Facebook (jokes, e.g. “crazy drunk [instructor A] is better than boring stoned [instructor B]!”). The department heads argued that the comments were “visible to the community” (similar to the “notices on campus” argument), but they clearly didn’t understand the context (wall post or message? profile or group?) or privacy settings, and they couldn’t even locate the comments on the site (someone had copied and pasted them into an email). They, too, failed to specify how any policies were actually violated (or even which ones), yet they’d gone ahead and notified the professor of the students’ comments and identities (while there was still grading to be done). We convinced them to back down and apologize, but it took a solid week, mid-semester, to deal with the mess.

Universities should understand and develop policies about social networking sites before they take action against students. If they can’t be clear about what qualifies as misconduct, how can students expect to know? What’s the difference between a Facebook group and study group? An email and a Facebook message? What difference do privacy settings make (hopefully some…)? How was this post on a Facebook group different from a review on What’s the difference between off-campus speech and speech on non-school websites? Before policing student speech off-site (problematic in and of itself), universities should at least ask these questions and develop policies first. It doesn’t seem like many of them have. It’s pretty ridiculous to just throw social networking under the ambiguous “but not limited to” umbrella.

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Companies: facebook, university of calgary

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Comments on “Student On Probation For Expressing A Negative Opinion About An Instructor On Facebook”

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Instigator says:

‘They’ are getting them while they are still young. ‘Teaching’ them that its not ok to express thier opinions, and that speaking out against ‘authority’ is bad. It will only get worse as time goes on, untill the young cannot blink without it being taken into account. its ALL about contol. they want total control and obediance from us. we can fight it, but is it one we can win? i think it is, lets all go start riots, they are fun and communal and all age groups can enjoy them. RIOT

Jesse says:

The best part is that so many university teachers are really bad teachers. (Having a Phd means you know how to teach, am I right? Actually learning how to teach is for ninnies.) So rather than make sure the university is employing quality teachers that don’t lie about their status with the university, they reprimand anyone who complains. Don’t think this is isolated to UofC.

Josh Benson says:

Framing somone you dont like?

** “The department heads argued that the comments were “visible to the community” (similar to the “notices on campus” argument), but they clearly didn’t understand the context (wall post or message? profile or group?) or privacy settings, and they couldn’t even locate the comments on the site (someone had copied and pasted them into an email).” **

With this knowledge, it may be possible to “frame” any unliked person at a university by sending an anonymous email (or carpet email-bomb) to each member of the school’s faculty, stating that “[unliked-student] posted [derogatory comment] on [Facebook/Myspace] regarding [professor’s-name]. Please do something about it!” And since the comments are blocked by a “privacy setting”, the university facility staff would just need to take the anonymous email’s word as fact.

superdude says:

This is ridiculous. There are too many schools out there who are hiring terrible teachers. I have had way too many professors who had a PHD in another unrelated topic, or did not speak the language of any students. My favorite examples are the composition professor who had a degree in Marine Biology, and the calc professor who spoke only Romanian and wrote all notes with the Cyrillic alphabet. Luckily my school was small and this was not a widespread issue, but I am an engineer who taught himself calc, probably poorly, reflected with my stellar 2.7 GPA. Upon criticism most schools fly off the handle with remarks about how you need to grow up, when it is really them who need to grow up. They can criticize me, but not them? This sounds like a Kindergarten lesson about dishing out only what you can take.

Anonymous Coward says:

I had an instructor (a grad student) in college who was so bad when he first walked in the door three students got up and left. The rest of us should have followed them. The guy knew the material but just didn’t know how to teach. Every test we had he had to “clarify” every question becaues nobody could figure out what the hell he was talking about. I got a B in the course solely because I knew the material already. And I had close to the highest average in the class. Three-quarters of the class either dropped or just flunked. I took the instructor evaluation form and wrote a scathing but not offensive recap of the course that covered front and back. (usually I just filled out the check boxes and handed them in) Did no good: the same jerk was teaching the same class the next term.

coolkev99 (profile) says:

School out of line

This is pure BULL. The school is out way out of line. So a student can’t say anything bad about instructors? Or was that it was posted on facebook? So what! It wasn’t even on campus! If this teacher were any good, or even a reasonable person, the poster would be laughed at and ignored, and the instructor would care less. But we all know what the real truth is here. Just another example of where the constitution is thrown out inside the school house.

I’ve run into waaaaaaaaaay to many head-case instructors who would never make it in the real world, and can only survive in their control obsessed, academia comfort-zone. I think its a requirement to trade in your common sense when you receive your Ph.D.

I’m sure these University teachers NEVER say anything publically negative about our leaders or president. How DARE someone do it to them.

Jon Smarts says:

The student was punished by writing something negative about one of his professors? …while the student was still enrolled in his class semester.

I wonder what the school would have done if the student had saved all his choice words for the professor, and posted them AFTER he had graduated.

Would it have been likely that the school might have revoked his grade?

Possible lesson taught by the school here: Got something poor to say about someone. Say it behind their back, not to their face.

Doug (user link) says:

rate my teachers?

Leave it to University administrations to blow things out of proportion. First off, what about the person who administers the group on Facebook? They are just as responsible for providing a channel and a persuasive bump to add to the discussion. Secondly, if students take the time to rally together and discuss how much they like/dislike a prof, shouldn’t the admins be actually *listening* to what they’re saying instead of punishing those who have something to say? Are they going to also check into all the users on sites like and punish everyone who gave a prof a bad review?

Students are *paying* for their education. This is akin to any business out there suing a patron for sharing a bad experience.

Post-secondary education is a service. A product. If your product sucks, people are going to talk about it. The channel doesn’t matter. What matters is making sure it doesn’t suck.

deb taylor says:

Student's probation

The youth didn’t use profanity, and just spoke his opinion of the aledged not so good situation. He should NOT have been punished.

If he was making up bold, faced slander and using obsenity, maybe, but that’s even debateable. (sp?)

It’s my opinion thus far, that many admistrators in the education realm, go with this “group think” handling of situations. Maybe that is why we see this sort of “solution” doled out.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Discussing instructors on Facebook

Right on again, Mike, and you hit me again!
A LONG time ago (we still carried clubs and wore animal skins then) I had a course in “rotating machinery”.
The instructor claimed he had gotten his doctorate when he was 21. It turned out that he was determined to screen out lesser beings.
I was in a class of 35, and later found that 31 were REPEATING this REQUIRED course!
I was one of the 9 who passed (I was the lone “D”).
The university terminated him (reportedly because he refused to change the grades to pass more people), but also made it clear that this was not something open for discussion, and in the environment then, they got no argument (certainly not from me; it ruined my grade point average, but I PASSED!)
I still resent not being able to discuss it – certainly, if I had known, I would have held off taking the course for a semester (and, as it turned out, the problem would have gone away).
BTW, one guy had an A++ average, and took ONLY that course that semester to better his chances – he got a “B-“, the only grade higher than a “C”. Most of the “C” students got “C-“; I think there was one “C+” and one “C”.
It is amazing how much power college administrators have, and it just shouldn’t be!

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

BTW on discussing professors

Also, there is the problem of the professor. In grad school, one professor was known to be “easy” (no small thing in that school – number one in the state and number 7 overall, they claimed). Let’s just say he had the most popular class by far.
Someone posted a comment on a bulletin board (no internet then). Half the class failed – in the previous 3 classes, no one failed. The professor even commented his feelings were hurt (though I still don’t see it as derogatory, the post simply said his class was easy).
What would we do about that sort of thing?

RomeoSidVicious (profile) says:

It's not just talk against profs either...


“A Minnesota university has suspended one of its graduate students who sent two e-mail messages to school officials supporting gun rights.

Hamline University also said that master’s student Troy Scheffler, who owns a firearm, would be barred from campus and must receive a mandatory “mental health evaluation” after he sent an e-mail message arguing that law-abiding students should be able to carry firearms on campus for self-defense.”

The whole article is insane to be honest. Our institutions of higher learning are not interested in teaching our youth to think for themselves, to express those thoughts, and to defend their point of view unless it agrees with the status quo at the university.

I didn’t post this to start a discussion on gun rights because it doesn’t matter what right the student was promoting or whether you agree with his viewpoint or not. He was suspended and ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation for having his viewpoint! He was stupid in the way he worded it (Read the article) but was not threatening.

What’s even worse is the school won’t even lay out all of the allegations against him or allow him to confront his accusers per their own policy.

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