Free speech? Yes, but with supervision

Elaine Helm

Facebook junkies beware. Yes, I mean you, members of “Accidentally Missed Class Because I Was Hungover On a Weekday … Again.” Your professors could read your message boards or take offense at your favorite group’s title.

That happened to some students, most of them freshmen, at the end of last quarter when Medill Assistant Prof. Michele Weldon heard about four groups she found particularly distasteful, including “The Alliance for Unethical Journalism” and “I Was Raped by My Medill Midterm.”

The events that followed show how The Facebook, which began as a free-spirited home for social interaction, has become a danger zone.

Shortly after discovering the groups, Weldon sent her students an e-mail March 8 saying she was “outraged and dumbfounded” by the names of the groups and comments posted on their message boards.

“I consider what I have discovered … to be injustices,” she wrote in the e-mail. “I feel as your instructor it is my obligation to bring this to your attention so you can learn from this and change the behavior. If you did this on a blog about a boss or source, you’d be fired.”

Word spread quickly among the groups’ members and membership plunged. The founders of two groups changed the names to something less offensive.

The issue came to a close on Friday with a Medill-sponsored ethics panel for freshmen. Administrators and guest speakers talked about the distinction between free speech and libel. They warned that students should think twice before they put anything in writing, especially on the Internet.

The message was not lost on David Spett, a Daily staffer who founded one of the groups Weldon targeted in her e-mail. He acknowledged that some of the content on his group’s site was disrespectful, but said he never intended for professors to read it.

“I will certainly be more careful about the Facebook groups that I create,” he told me.

Spett isn’t the only one. Students hesitate to express themselves when they know they’re being watched.

When thefacebook.com first became accessible at Northwestern in April 2004, it caught on like wildfire. Now more than 5,600 students identifying themselves as current undergraduates have posted their information on the site — that’s 70 percent of the undergraduate student body.

Professors, lecturers and administrators were slower to catch onto the fad. But about 50 self-identified faculty members belong to the Facebook, including six from Medill who joined after Weldon sent her e-mail.

Weldon told me she just wants students to think about their future when they publish anything online. “(The Facebook) may be your generation’s mode of communication, but my generation still controls the consequences,” she said.

Imposing words from an educator at one of the country’s finest institutions for producing journalists. Free speech comes with a caveat after all.

Elaine Helm is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]