Posts tagged social media

Teachers confronting the “new paparazzi”: protect your reputation

Vancouver lawyer Tony Wilson has an entertaining article in the current issue of Teacher Newsmagazine, a publication of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, with cautionary tales of public figures getting caught unaware within range of a microphone (leaving Gregor Robertson’s gaffe [Vancouver Sun] off the list) and how this technology may affect teachers.  This is how he concludes the article:

All this is interesting, but what applicability does it have to the teaching profession? A lot, actually.

In February 2010, two teachers at Winnipeg’s Churchill High School got carried away with the moment, and performed a raunchy and suggestive lap dance at a student pep rally in front of 100 students. The fully clothed performance included mock spanking and implied oral sex. A student with a cell phone filmed it and posted it the next day to YouTube, resulting in the suspension and firing of the teachers involved.

So the lesson is this: if you’re a teacher, you’re already being scrutinized minute by minute by your students. They all have cell phones these days. All the cell phones have video and still photo capabilities. You may be their teacher, but they are the new paparazzi. Make one slip up or error in judgment and you’ll find you’re suddenly Brittany Spears or Mel Gibson (but without all the money).

So protect your own reputations. Remember—every cell phone is a camera and every microphone is live. 

This certainly puts a lot of pressure on teachers.  My sense is that allowing students to record or take pictures of teachers while they teach may easily create an uncomfortable work environment.  Unless a student has a good reason (e.g. medical or otherwise) for needing to record a teacher, schools should have policies against students using recording devices in classrooms.  This is not because any teacher should be protected if they teach or say anything horrible - there are other ways to deal with that - but because any picture or video or audio recording can be used by students to hurt the teacher’s reputation (e.g. chop up what they say or do and reproduce it easily). 

Students today use computers and other devices with modems the way students used to use paper, and it’s incredibly easy to post something.  Teachers deserve at least some protection from the silly and often mean methods students use to poke fun.  Schools may be liable for not doing enough to ensure the classroom is not a hazardous location for a teacher’s online reputation.

Now, this is entirely different from the university context, where the cost of education increases, the level of classroom time decreases, the teaching material may be more difficult to wade through without oral interpretation, and a student’s livelihood may be more directly affected by getting something wrong. This is different also from online criticism of teachers and professors. 

The recent decision in Pridgen v. University of Calgary (CanLII), which involved comments by students on Facebook about a professor, affirmed that students should have a venue for criticising their educators.  This is how the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta presented the rationale:

I cannot accept that expression in the form of criticism of one’s professor must be restricted in order to accomplish the objective of maintaining an appropriate learning environments. I do not regard this particular kind of expression as being of little value. Students should not be prevented from expressing critical opinions regarding the subject matter or quality of the teaching they are receiving. As an educational institution, the University should expect and encourage frank and critical discussion regarding the teaching ability of professors amongst students, even in instances where the comments exchanged are unfavourable. While certain of the comments made about Professor Mitra were not particularly gracious and might have reflected a lack of maturity, the Facebook Wall does have utility as a forum of discussion. The commentary may assist future students in course selection as well as provide feedback to existing students and perhaps reassurance that one is not alone in finding that they are having difficulty appreciating instruction in a particular course. If Professor Mitra was concerned that she was being defamed, then she could have brought a civil action. 

The problem is when the online comments or representations of educators amount to harassment or bullying.  In the case of Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board & Seguin v. Lentini et al., the Ontario Superior Court of Justice awarded damages to a principal and school board after students and others who were unhappy with one of the principal’s decisions about athletics created a Facebook group and posted comments accusing him of engaging in pedophilia on school property.   Imagine how much worse the harassment could have been if the students and others had access to mashed up audio or video material of the principal or an unflattering picture of him.  

I think Wilson’s phrase – the “new paparazzi” – because students more than any other group in our society rely on and function through social media.  Schools should acknowledge the implications of this reality for teachers and take the necessary steps to protect them from its abusive possibilities.


Students gone facebook stupid: nursing students reprimanded, then vindicated, for posting placenta picture

How would you feel if the nurse helping your wife through labour and delivery had just before finishing nursing school posted a photo of herself on Facebook posing and smiling broadly while holding a human placenta?

In yet another example of students going Facebook stupid, four students who posed for photos with a placenta were reportedly (insidehighered) kicked out of their suburban Kansas City nursing program at after one of the photos was posted on Facebook.  The students were attending a lab course at Olathe Medical Center when one asked the nursing instructor for permission to take pictures with the placenta to be shared on Facebook, which is exactly what they did.   The instructor denies the students asked for permission to post the pictures on Facebook.  The posted photo does not identify the woman from whom the placenta came.

Several hours after the photo was posted, the nursing instructor called the student who posted it and asked her to remove it, which she did immediately.  The four students were each expelled from the program the next day (or, more correctly, were kicked out and asked to reapply for the program this summer), and one of them started a lawsuit to force the school to readmit her immediately.  Here is a link to legal documents filed on behalf of the student.  Here is the press release with an explanation from Johnson County Community College, which includes a quote from the plaintiff’s letter of apology admitting she “should never have posted the photograph”.

Her claim went before a federal judge, who ruled (Huffington Post) against the college and noted that “I’m an uptight guy and I’m not offended [by the picture]“.   He focused on the fact that the particular mother was not identifiable, that there was implied consent by the instructor and that the school’s response was overkill, which denied the student due process.

Most of the opinions on these events involve criticism of the school.  Here is an interesting comment from blogger Eric Stoller (insidehighered):

I wonder if students at JCCC are taught how to use social media sites like Facebook in a manner that is respectful, ethical, and appropriate in terms of patient confidentiality. Posting and sharing all aspects of our daily lives via social media has become an accepted norm. As with most disciplines, students are not always inherently aware of what is and is not right. We have to teach them, not overly punish them when they make mistakes.

This story, which has been big in the news south of the border, raises issues about free expression of students and the power of educational authorities to take action against students for non-academic off-campus behavior.  My guess is that judges will eventually frown upon students arguing that schools should stay away from their online profiles, when those profiles are so easily accessible and the material posted there may be inflammatory and linked to the schools.  The Pridgen decision (see posts here and here) involving the University of Calgary is one example of a recent case that universities are looking to in an attempt to figure out what their response should be to Facebook posts by students that involve their educational experience.

There are several lessons, among others, that can be taken away from this story:

  • Privacy Is Dead, and You Killed It:  Students have to treat Facebook as a professional and educational hazard.  No matter who broad or narrow your class of “friends”, students should expect that anything they post anywhere on the internet may eventually be quoted in major news media.  It may also be taken (or mistaken, as the case may be) by an educational institution or employer as a reason to adopt certain measures against you.  Courts, like in the Pridgen decision, show an appreciation for the nature of interaction and communication on social media (i.e. it’s not exactly Oscar Wilde’s greatest hits), but if you do not want to attract attention, do not show your underwear, so to speak, in the public domain.
  • Students Are in for the Long Haul:  Courts understand that actions by educational institutions can severely impair a student’s ability to earn a livelihood, particular when the internet makes any incident – no matter that the context – almost impossible to keep off the radar of potential future employers.
  • Consider the Legal and Non-Legal Sides of Things:  The college may have overreacted and thus violated the student’s rights, but that doesn’t mean 10 years from now a smartphone-carrying mom-to-be in labour googling the names of attending nurses and physicians (I’ve seen it happen!) will be pleased to learn about these sorts of Facebook hijinks.

We – lawyers, academics, everyone! – are still trying to come to grips with the new reality imposed on us and what that means in terms of our rights and obligations.  If you want to stay out of trouble, tread carefully.


The power and perils of social media

Everything we use or consume regularly has an incredibly powerful impact on our lives.  Some of these things we simply take for granted or see as essential, which lets them form part of the framework of daily living rather than be appreciated as accessories or novelties (e.g. coffee, email, cell–phones, etc.).  These things either have significance each time they sit in front of us or in our hands, as the case may be, but at the very least they impose a cumulative consequence on our bodies and our identities.  Quietly, they carry out a revolution.

We constantly remind ourselves of the advantages that come from these items.  Smartphones let us work from anywhere.  Coffee keeps us alert even though our kids took turns waking up their parents all night.  And so on.  But, occasionally, events occur that make us pause to consider their larger impact, including the harm they may be causing us. Email makes it easier to keep in touch with family, but have we lost something by speaking to them less?  Does facebook let us have more “friends” but fewer meaningful relationships that can be relied on to add substance to our lives?  Does the internet give us access to more information but make it more difficult to learn and retain new knowledge?  Does coffee make us more productive but less relaxed?  What exactly are we losing in exchange for what we’ve gained?

The rates of use of social media, like facebook, are astounding, particularly among children.  These sites have imposed a fundamentally unique social context to their upbringings, which is entirely different from what their parents and grandparents had to deal with.  Here are some of the hallmarks of this new reality:

  • Personal branding has become a major concern and, more significantly, requires a considerable logistical investment.  Your image isn’t confined to the clothes you wear on a given day, what you say in class or, generally, what you do.  How others see you is largely determined by how you appear on the virtual playground – that is, your status updates, your wall, etc. and the other personalized bells and whistles on social media sites.  These sites hand each child a megaphone to project themselves, and because of social pressures they can’t use it in a neutral way.
  • Images are everywhere and are easily reproduced and transmitted.  I remember the worst thing a friend could do was record a conversation without telling you and catch you saying embarrassing things.  Now at any moment anyone can take a picture of you and have a copy of it in front of hundreds of your classmates and friends in a matter of seconds.

It’s obvious that these raise social, and perhaps psychological, questions about the effects of these factors on children.  But they also raise legal questions.  Widespread social phenomona like this one can create a legal reality that should be addressed. 

What sparked this concern in me this week was news over the weekend about a gang rape in Pitt Meadows last Saturday night, photos of which were posted on facebook.  Here is an excerpt from a report by the Vancouver Sun:

[A] 16-year-old boy was arrested on Tuesday for photographing the assault and uploading the photos to Facebook. He is expected to face charges of distributing child pornography but those charges have not yet been laid. Photographs of the girl’s assault were shared on Facebook and are “spreading like wildfire” on the Internet according to police.

At a news conference in Maple Ridge on Friday, Lench said police have been in touch with Facebook about keeping the photos off its system and are also working with the Ministry of Education to prevent the spreading of the photos on school computers.

 Lench said police believe the message is getting out that possession of the photos is a crime — possession of child pornography — and parents are pressuring their kids to stop sending the photos around.

I am not arguing that facebook is the cause of gang rape or anything like that, but it is definitely a tool that has been used in this instance to facilitate a crime.  Here is another article in the Sun discussing the challenges being faced by police to prevent re-victimization by distribution of the photos. 
Janet Steffenhagen of the Vancouver Sun reported on her blog this morning that Vancouver trustee Mike Lombardi has urged schools to teach students about the proper use of social media:
One of the initial reactions of the educational community was to pretend social media doesn’t exist and ignore it,” Lombardi said. “Schools can’t do that any more.”
The issues surrounding this event should be studied from a legal perspective, not simply social or psychological ones, to determine what role, if any, can be played by the law.  Encouraging a policy on social media in schools, as Lombardi suggests, is one step forward, but we will need to continue to seek innovative measures to address this.

Using social media to improve, not impair, your prospects

Following up on my post from last week, the dangers and pitfalls embedded in the use of social media, like Facebook, are growing increasingly clear.  But an equally important issue, which I did not touch on below, is how these tools can be used to maximize their benefits (of which there are plenty!). 

Teacher Newsmagazine, a publication of BCTF, recently carried an interesting article by prominent Vancouver lawyer Tony Wilson, who practised intellectual property law at Boughton.  He speaks directly to students and educators and advises them on how to use social media to protect, instead of diminish, their online reputation, while reminding us fully of the precautions we should take.  Wilson refers to a new area of law emerging on this subject:

The online world has created a new area of law in this age of Web 2.0. Its called Online Reputation Management Law, and it straddles the law of defamation, freedom of speech, privacy law, copyright law, and trademark law. It also involves the non-legal (but equally as important) fields of public relations and crisis management. Many of the legal issues in this area involve Facebook, which has over 350,000,000 users, (including about 90% of all the middle school and secondary school students you and your colleagues teach every day. You might be a Facebook user as well.)

Digital information presents fundamentally different material for publication from any content we have seen before because it is so easily reproduced, and, in part for that reason, once it is created and released it is almost impossible to retract.  For better or worse, you do not need a printing press to spread words or images in front of the minds of the many.  Copy and paste, linking and other web functions have lowered (or liberated – depending who you ask) the bar for self-styled commentators and editors.

I remember when I was a pre-teen the worst thing someone could do was ask you whether you had a crush on someone while secretly recording your conversation.  The possibilities are now endless of how someone can damage your reputation or otherwise ruin your relationships using any number of devices that sell for relatively affordable prices and are operational with relatively unsophisticated levels of training. 

But now, like back then, the greater risk posed to your own reputation is yourself.  Reproducibility and irretractability of digital information are two basic elements of our web-based society.  We deny them, or minimize their significance, at our own peril.  Students have broad ambitions; based on their age and the common use of social media, it is relatively easy for a momentary lapse in judgment to damage their career prospects.  Similarly, educators, because of their unique role with respect to youth and the advancement of knowledge, have concerns of equal importance.  It is essential for both these groups to adopt clear standards, both personal and professional, when using social media.   

See here for a pamphlet by BLG on Education Law that contains an interesting article on a user’s guide to social networking that is tailored to school staff.