Is It A First Amendment Violation For Public Universities To Tell Athletes They Can't Tweet?

from the government-restrictions-on-speech dept

Eric P. Robinson, from the Citizen Media Law Project has a fascinating post analyzing whether or not it's a First Amendment violation when public universities put in place policies forbidding athletes from Tweeting or using Facebook:
It turns out that a number of public and private universities -- including Boise State, Indiana University, New Mexico State, Texas Tech, the University of Miami (private), and the University of North Carolina -- have followed the lead of the National Football League, which imposes limits on players' use of social media. The NFL prohibits players from using social media during games (and has attempted to extend this to others at the game).

But the schools have gone further: Boise State banned players from using any social media during the season, while New Mexico State barred Twitter during the season.  Meanwhile, the University of Miami, UNC, and Texas Tech all required football players to cancel their Twitter accounts entirely. And Indiana University indefinitely suspended a player from the football team after he sent Tweets criticizing the school's coaching staff.
As Robinson notes, private organizations can put in place whatever policies they want (within certain limits), but the question is a bit trickier with public institutions. Numerous rulings have granted free speech rights to students in public institutions -- with famous cases like Tinker v. Des Moines -- the classic "free speech in school" case. Robinson points out that the courts have held universities to an even higher standard. He runs through a series of (sometimes conflicting) case law, which finds that free speech is mostly protected, but restrictions are allowed for things like insubordination, but overall bans on social networking may be tougher to legally support:
The rule emerging from these cases seems to be that public schools can reprimand student athletes for insubordinately expressing dissatisfaction with their coaches, while they cannot punish athletes for serious -- and specific -- allegations. The Indiana University suspension, resulting from Tweets critical of the coaches, would probably be upheld under this rule. 

But it would be difficult for the blanket rules imposed by the other schools on use of social media by football players -- a total ban on Twitter or on all social media, applying either during the season, or at all times -- to withstand First Amendment scrutiny.  Schools may penalize students for specific Tweets or posts that are likely to lead "substantial disruption of or material interference" with the team and its activities, but cannot impose a prior restraint on athletes in mere anticipation of such a comment.

For failing to go through the First Amendment goalposts, the public colleges' policies limiting athletes' use of social networking sites should be sacked.

Filed Under: first amendment, public universities, social networks

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  1. icon
    Griff (profile), 2 Dec 2010 @ 2:28am

    It's not about the medium

    If someone rang the local newspaper and dissed the coach, would they ban use of phones ?

    If there is a specific act (e.g. criticising the coach) that they wish to ban, why not say "to be in the team you agree to not publically criticise the coach". This is part of the contract of being in the team (not attending the institution).

    I'm sure people would not fail to apply to a university that said "if you are selected to be in our football team, you will be asked to sign a 'don't publically diss the coach' clause before being allowed to join the team.
    The sanction should be limited to being thrown out of the team.
    Of course, there should be some mechanism for disaffected players to privately raise constructive criticism as a first resort.

    But if the up front clause was "don't ever publically criticise teaching at this institution", then I'd certainly not apply to any such university. I mean, what have they got to hide ?

    But no Facebook ? They must be joking.
    I mean, I'm 45 and barely use Facebook but at least I get how important it is to younger folk these days.

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