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A Gratuitous ‘Experiment’ in Censorship? Harrisburg U. Bans Social Networking for a Week

They want the campus to "see how they can use social media in a more positive and efficient way." Huh?

by
Robert Shibley

Bio

September 16, 2010 - 12:00 am
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But do they? Harrisburg University admits that its Internet blocking is easily skirted. After all, students can go off campus to a place with wireless Internet, or use their smartphones to access these social networks. This makes the censorship attempt more of an annoyance than a real prohibition. Yet since the point of the exercise is to give students a shared experience in deprivation, it stands to reason that if Harrisburg University could figure out a way to block smartphones and outside wi-fi access, it would do so. That would make the experiment less of an annoyance and more of a real experiment. But the fact that the prohibition can be easily skirted is how the university is avoiding calling the blocking “censorship” in the first place! Indeed, with the experiment in full swing for nearly a week, the university is finding that students seem more annoyed or challenged by the restrictions than enlightened.

So what was the point, exactly? The real key to Harrisburg University’s decision can most likely be found in Vice President Darr’s statement that the purpose of the blackout is to help “students see how they can use social media in a more positive and efficient way.” A concern for “efficiency” in social media is new to me, but attempts to make what students say on social media sites more positive are nothing new. All the way back in 2005, a student at the University of Central Florida was charged with “harassment” of the “personal abuse” variety for starting a Facebook group about a student government candidate he didn’t like. The group was called (gasp!) “Victor Perez is a Jerk and a Fool.”  And just last March, the University of Chicago Police censored a student’s joking Facebook post that he had a dream about assassinating University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer (co-author of the controversial book The Israel Lobby) “for a secret Israeli organization.” Colleges are even buying software to robotically monitor the Facebook posts of their students (just athletes, for now, as far as we know).

The Internet has made amazing forms of communication possible, and it was perhaps inevitable that established authorities (like those who run our colleges and universities) would be uncomfortable with it for a variety of different reasons. However, simply because communication has become faster, more colloquial, and nearly omnipresent thanks to social networks is no reason to abandon the traditional American principles that have guaranteed us an open society in which the government does not dictate what citizens may see or say, online or off. Harrisburg University would be wise to concentrate on educating its students rather than cordon off part of the Internet in an ill-considered and ultimately doomed attempt to get students to be nicer to each other online.

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Robert Shibley is the vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, PA.
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