A British university has fined a student for creating a dating Web site to make love connections between library patrons, arguing that it brought the institution “into disrepute.” The student has disabled the site, saying he feared further punishment if he left it operational.
The site, called FitFinder, allowed students studying in university libraries to flirt online by posting messages proclaiming their attraction. It was an instant sensation. Its debut coincided with the study period for final examinations in Britain, when university libraries were filled with students looking for distraction, and use of the site spread quickly from University College London, where it began, to institutions across Britain.
Within four weeks, it had a presence at more than 30 universities, but it had also generated controversy, with some students complaining about the offensive tone of some messages. FitFinder drew the attention of administrators at University College London, where Richard Martell, who founded the site along with two unnamed classmates who have remained behind the scenes, is a final-year student. He was summoned by the dean of pastoral care, the equivalent of the dean of students, who informed him of the university’s displeasure.
“Basically, they said they didn’t like the site and wanted us to take it down,” Mr. Martell says of that initial session, adding that the dean told him the institution had received complaints from a number of other universities. “I said we want to work with the university—tell us what you don’t like, tell us how we can improve it,” is how Mr. Martell describes his response. The site remained up and he was called in for another meeting. “They gave me an official warning and a fine, saying we’re fining you, we’re asking you to take the site down, and if you don’t pay the fine, we are going to withhold your degree.”
University College London released a statement of its own, saying it “advised the student to take the site down, but he has declined to do this. UCL has no jurisdiction over the site, as it is not UCL-hosted.” It said the student was disciplined for “bringing the college into disrepute.”
Not wanting to further jeopardize his graduation prospects—he has completed all his coursework and taken his final exams, but still not received his degree—Mr. Martell took down the site. He paid the fine of £300, or $435, the university’s maximum financial penalty.
Instead of the stream of flirtatious—and occasionally vulgar—messages with which students had been able to distract themselves from their studies for the past few weeks, the site now features a forlorn message informing readers that “we have decided to remove FitFinder, BUT we hope this is only temporary.”
Mr. Martell’s immediate priority is to obtain his degree, he says: “If I weren’t still a university student, if this was two months down the line, it would be different.”
More than 6,000 people have signed a petition of support for the site since word of its troubles began to emerge, Mr. Martell says, and he thinks the university’s response will ultimately backfire. “I pulled it down on my own accord because I wanted to comply with them, but now it has worked against them and has angered people,” he says. “This has almost brought them more into disrepute than I did in the first place.”