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March 25, 2010, 03:24 PM ET

U. of Chicago Student Questions University's Reaction to Facebook Post

A student at the University of Chicago says an innocent status update on Facebook led to an investigation by university police.

Joseph Dozier, a third-year political-science and classics student, posted a comment on his Facebook page on December 6 saying "Dreamt that I assassinated John Mearsheimer for a secret Israeli organization—there was a hidden closet with Nazi paraphanelia [sic]. Haha! :-)" Mr. Mearsheimer, who has been one of Mr. Dozier's instructors, is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

Mr. Dozier told The Chronicle that his post referred to the professor's book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which proposes that a coalition of people and groups guide U.S. policy toward pro-Israel stances. The student said his post was making fun of criticism of the book, which discusses the lobby's power and says it has unintentionally harmed Israel.

Mr. Dozier says a police officer called to question him about the post the next day and said he would need to remove the post or it would be reported to Mr. Mearsheimer. The student contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that focuses on free-speech issues, which told the news media about the case on Wednesday and has posted documents online, including a screenshot of Mr. Dozier's status update and a rough transcript of the officer's call based on Mr. Dozier's notes about the case.

Steve Kloehn, a spokesman for the University of Chicago, said the institution could not comment on specific cases. He did say that the University of Chicago police and administrators do not routinely monitor Internet sites but do check them in response to specific complaints or investigations.

Mr. Dozier said he did not plan any legal action against the University of Chicago but wants clarification of its policies for monitoring students' online activities.

"In light of events at campuses around the nation in recent decades and our responsibility for the well-being of all members of our campus community, police do not take any possible threat lightly, but investigate such reports as diligently as necessary in order to rule out a threat or take appropriate action," Mr. Kloehn said in a statement to The Chronicle.

Mr. Kloehn also cited a university Web page, which says the university does not limit statements that it may find "unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive." The university does consider some behaviors as in need of formal university intervention, including "acts of violence and explicit threats of violence directed at a particular individual that compromise that individual's safety or ability to function within the university setting."

Adam H. Kissel, director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, said Mr. Dozier's situation is concerning. He also mentioned another situation FIRE is monitoring in which another University of Chicago student, Andrew Thompson, posted photographs of his former girlfriend on a Facebook photo album called "[Name of ex-girlfriend] cheated on me, and you're next!" According to FIRE, a university official told Mr. Thompson that his ex-girlfriend had complained, and the album needed to be removed. She reportedly cited the Student Manual, saying it allowed her to require he remove the offensive language.

Comments

1. eelalien - March 25, 2010 at 05:43 pm

Yet another instance of a student posting something inappropriate and moronic, and then seeking protection as free speech. Speech may be free, but the consequences may be costly - in one manner or another. How about a movement towards "thoughtful" speech, meaning thinking before blurting out whatever idiotic notion pops into your head - or is "thinking" passe' these days...?

2. dpjenny - March 25, 2010 at 06:43 pm

I am curious if this Face Book posting was part of a course discussion or just his personal site. It does not change anything. I am just curious given that some professors are utilizing FB as a tool to foster discussion. The comments were moronic and demonstrate a lack of 'deep of thought' common in social media. As much as 'free speech' gets tossed around, you'd think people would have significant understanding of Constitutional intent. I am not sure we do. Of course, you'd hope a political science major would have this depth of understanding.

3. uchibeef2011 - March 25, 2010 at 07:32 pm

I know the student in question. He's a real smart guy with a great sense of humor that can be politically incorrect at times. Most of us students who saw the comment thought it was quite amusing especially those that know Mearsheimer and all the unnecessary criticism this great academic has faced in light of his work.

If anything, the UCPD's investigation was moronic in the way they approached the situation and questioned Tex. I'd recommend you look at the following links as well (transcript, status pic, & letter from FIRE):
http://www.thefire.org/article/11682.html
http://www.thefire.org/article/11676.html
http://www.thefire.org/article/11675.html

I think most telling of Tex's character and his intent can be taken from his personal remarks. He's added another post following along the Chronicle piece. RE: the first comment above = "I'm not seeking protection at all...I'm seeking answers."
http://thoughtsfromatexan.com/blog/university-of-chicago-repeatedly-censors-student-facebooks/
http://thoughtsfromatexan.com/blog/uchicago-facebook-controvery-continued/

It just is really unfair to call Tex "moronic". If anything, one claiming that Tex was moronic does not understand how he was actually demonstrating the moronic "lack of 'deep of thought'" from those who criticize Mearsheimer.

4. lawman11 - March 26, 2010 at 01:16 am

uchibeef2011, the comment was moronic. Akin in this day and age to joking about having a bomb whilst boarding a plane.
Whatever the nature of the response by the police, amateurish or whatever, at least there was a response. If a student had put my name in that post, I would want the police to call him.
And what of the university? Should they do nothing, which is what you are saying. People are not mindreaders. You claim as does the student, that he was expressing support for the teacher. Anyone reading the post would rightly assume the exact opposite.
He's a moron and the call needed to be made.

5. 22058726 - March 26, 2010 at 06:56 am

Just wanted to add one other vote for the "moron" perspective on this ill-advised Facebook post. Hopefully, this will be a learning experience for this student about what is and is not protected by free speech, as well as why jokes about killing someone really aren't funny. I had a student once who thought it was funny to make a reference to the airplane exploding when he was going through security (and this was pre-9/11). He learned, too - by spending a couple nights in an Atlanta jail.

6. thefederalist - March 26, 2010 at 09:00 am

uchibeef2011: I do not know the student in question. That's the point, isn't it? Heaven knows, in my college days I said some pretty moronic things - late at night, amongst friends and family who can place what I said in the context of their relationship with me. It makes a difference. If Mr. Dozier doesn't think it makes a difference, then he's even more moronic than his posted remarks indicate.

7. tridaddy - March 26, 2010 at 09:25 am

Why do we interpret free speech as being able to say whatever we wish without any responsibility on our part to accept the consequences? Half-thoughts and cryptic posts on social media outlets are bound to be misinterpreted, so it would seem to be the responsibility of the poster to either clearly explain what is meant (oh, that takes too much time) or not post at all.

8. senecan - March 26, 2010 at 10:32 am

The assassination post doesn't seem particularly funny--not nearly as funny as Dozier's self-serving reconstruction of his conversation with the police officer.

I suppose there are unresolved issues as to the private/public nature of Facebook posts, but is FIRE really going to argue that on-line posts about committing murder shouldn't be investigated? Where have they been these past few years?

9. ahkissel - March 26, 2010 at 01:32 pm

The language of the post and its context are obviously not serious. I encourage people to actually read the post and, if you're still not sure, read it in context. The phone call from the investigator could have ended very quickly, and certainly without censorship.

See more on this point here: http://www.thefire.org/article/11687.html

10. johntoradze - March 26, 2010 at 02:07 pm

Well, since this was on a facebook page with only "friend" access, it is arguable that Dozier could expect his remarks to be as private as "ate at night, amongst friends and family who can place what I said in the context of their relationship with me" as theFederalist says.

I think the lesson being learned by Mr. Dozier is that online friends are not the same as real friends. This is a lesson I learned the hard way 15 years ago in early online communities. (For an example, "The WELL" circle of online friends hounded Blair to suicide as discussed in Rheingold's book "Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier".)

The cop was doing his job. He figured out it wasn't serious, but has to follow through. Dozier did what he should have done by deleting the post on his facebook page.

So, uchibeef2011, I suggest that you tell Mr. Dozier that ideals about how things ought to be online are just not the way they are.

11. mrbotski - March 27, 2010 at 11:13 pm

I'm unsure if we're focusing on the correct part of this article-- as uchibeef pointed out, the approach to the investigation was somewhat mangled and clearly suboptimal. ahkissel has already covered the need to incorporate context; lawman11, you cannot believe you are correct when you say ANYONE reading the post would assume the opposite, unless you know for certain this is the case, and I doubt you can generalize from yourself to every student at UChicago to every student in a particular discipline, and so on and so forth. Saying that the call needed to be made is one matter, but I am curious about your interpretation of the call itself. Your comparison to the bomb aboard the plane is also inaccurate on multiple levels. thefederalist, I understand that you believe it's important to be able to step back from the situation and believe you are not too attached to the student himself, but there are contextual factors that complicate that step. I'm also unsure about how deleting the comment means things have changed.

I understand that people are hung up about the exact nature of the comment, but that's not the entire story here. I'm curious about what the University will do to clarify how it will respond to future circumstances on Facebook and other social media sites.

12. zefelius - March 28, 2010 at 01:55 am

There's nothing inconsistent or illogical with saying something "moronic" and then seeking free speech protection. Yes there will be consquences for certain actions, but that doesn't imply they are any less protected as free speech. I myself used to wear a burned American flag as a cape when I was in college. It was ripped off my back once and the guy ran off with it. I got another. The university warned me that I would be suspended. I contacted the ACLU, and you can imagine how it proceeded from there. Now, there were certainly consequences for my actions, and some people would say that I was acting in a moronic fashion, but none of that precludes my action from being protected.

As far as I know, the only instance in which it is automatically illegal to joke about killing someone is when it pertains to the President of the country. If I'm wrong, I certainly don't mind being corrected.

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