Administrators advise caution in Facebook postings

by Christine Paquin | 11/21/05 6:00am

Students nationwide may be learning that popular Facebook.com groups like the Marijuana Legalization League, Dartmouth College Streakers or I Pregame for Everything could get them in trouble at college or get in the way of future job offers.

Created in 2004 by Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook, an online database that connects students from various colleges through social networks and various groups, has proved to be a rising phenomenon. The directory, which allows students to create profiles revealing everything from personal photographs to addresses and cellular phone numbers, has swept the nation.

Some students, however, who thought no one but their peers were looking at their profiles have been caught off guard with disciplinary action. In a controversial episode, Fisher College recently expelled a student regarding his involvement with a Facebook group that the administration found to be in violation of college policy.

Although no public controversy related to the Facebook has yet occurred at Dartmouth, the issue is beginning to receive more attention by students and administrators.

Director of Undergraduate Judicial Affairs April Thompson said she was careful to speculate on whether information posted on the Facebook should merit college expulsion.

"I can't imagine every scenario," Thompson said. "Never say never because someone could write something that could violate a College policy. I can say that they wouldn't get involved in a disciplinary action at Dartmouth unless they violated a specific policy."

From a personal, but not legal, perspective Thompson advised students to exercise caution when using the website.

Thompson said she encourages students to think before they post, not only for the personal repercussions that might be associated with the action but also relating to a potentially negative effect on the Dartmouth community as a whole.

"I would be mindful of what I wrote. I would be mindful of my friends and fellow students," Thompson said. "There is a strong ethic of caring at Dartmouth. When we write things in a public forum that harm other people, it harms our community. It is free speech, but those are your fellow students -- people who care about you."

The skyrocketing popularity of the directory coupled with the Fisher College controversy has raised questions as to who, besides students, is accessing the Facebook and why.

All that is necessary to create a Facebook profile is a college e-mail address. As a result it is relatively easy for anyone, such as employers or parents, to access the posted information.

Several months ago, The Boston Globe noted that Brandeis University announced that administrators had begun to review students' Facebook profiles before hiring them for campus employment. The claim has since been denied by Brandeis officials.

Still, Monica Wilson, assistant director of Career Services, advises students to be mindful of their Facebook profiles because of the information's easy accessibility.

"It is a public forum, much like a blog," Wilson said. "There is definitely a potential for information being used, especially because so many individuals involved are Dartmouth alumni and familiar with the Facebook."

College Proctor Harry Kinne said students should exercise logical restraint when creating their profiles.

"I would always be careful about information that people make public," Kinne said. "Normal safety precautions should dictate how careful you should be. You don't want to put personal information on there that would identify you to anyone whom you didn't really want to be identified to."

Kinne included living arrangements, specific travel plans and phone numbers in the realm of information with which students should be cautious before broadcasting on their Facebook profiles.

Kinne said that the security concerns related to the Facebook can be linked back to the broader issue of the unabashedly public nature of the website.

"Since it is available to everyone, it really becomes public knowledge," Kinne said.

The security concerns associated with the Facebook, along with the content of the information posted by student members, ultimately come back to the issue of free speech.

In an age where the line between public and private information is constantly blurred, Thompson said that although they should be conscientious, students need not panic over potential infringement of their privacy.

"Dartmouth is very protective of the free speech issue. We have had people say things on their personal websites or in chat rooms that might have been offensive and we have just tried to engage these students in dialogue," Thompson said. "We wouldn't want to monitor Facebook. That is a space which is the students' own."