Facebook.com: An Overview of Uses and Limitations in Judicial Cases

Jason E. Lane
Assistant Professor
University of North Dakota

You walk out of your office to grab a file and notice your student worker quickly minimize a screen on his computer.  Curious, you ask him about it and he simply replies that he is “facebooking.”  Curiosity piqued, you inquire more.  Looking over his shoulder he describes to you a website that allows students to connect with each over the internet.  Interesting, but it sounds like only a new iteration of e-mail and instant messaging.  Later that day on the way to a meeting, you observe that students in the lounge, computer labs, coffee shop are all “facebooking.”  Research about Facebook is very limited; however, it should come as no surprise that a recent study by two students at MIT on Facebook usage reported that 60% of users in the study log into the site at least four times a week (Jones & Solten, 2005). (In fact, many of the undergraduates with whom I have discussed Facebook indicate that they log on to the site several times a day).  The study reported that usage was so prevalent that on campuses such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University the percentage of students possessing a Facebook.com account surpassed 90%.

Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) belongs to a cadre of new internet ventures known as social networking sites.  The sites exist for a range of purposes.  Consider this: by exploring the profile of other members, one can quickly find out such personal information as dating status (i.e., “single”, “in a relationship”, “in an open relationship”, “engaged”, “married”, or “its complicated”), sexual preferences, political views, movie and music interests, and favorite quotes.  Assuredly, some of the information available is quite provocative and a bit disturbing. While shocking to some, these reported behaviors are not new (although, some may argue that the structure of the site works to promote such activities or at least normalize them).  The site makes publicly available information about what college students have been doing in private for years.  This public access to traditionally private information is raising a number of questions regarding the relationship between postsecondary institutions and their students.

Toward the beginning of this semester while toying with writing this column, I was chatting with my graduate assistant about Facebook and she convinced me that the only way to understand the phenomenon was to log on to the site and explore.  After some trepidation about joining this group of mostly undergrads, I consented. With a few clicks and the entry of minimal personal information, I joined the community of 12.4 million college students, alumni, and a few faculty and staff.  Within two days of joining, I reconnected with friends from both my undergraduate and graduate institutions, read about the current trends in music and movies both on my campus and nationally, and discovered more about my undergraduate and graduate students and their friends than I either wanted or needed.  From the six people who I added to my “friends” list in those first few days, the site let me know that I was then connected to 289 other people.  I could investigate my friends’ friends to see if there were any who I want to list as my friends and add them to my list.

The site does not belong to the university nor is it a formal official extension of the campus environment.  Unlike many of the online social networking sites, Facebook is based on its members participating in a shared setting: a college campus (whether they area taking classes on campus or are distance learners).  For the most part, users can only access a particular college or university Facebook site if they possess the corresponding institution.edu e-mail address. Thus, the members of each individual site are also members of a broader campus community tied together through common courses, academic programs, cultural norms and values, and daily events that take place on and around campus.  In some ways, this sense of a quasi-exclusive community creates a sense of privacy and safety for many users who post pictures and stories about illegal and ethically-questionable activities.

One of the most egregious examples of the boasting of illegal activity centers on the recent burning of nine churches in Alabama.  Newsweek (Skip & Kim, 2006) reported that the culprits, three college students, chronicled some of their other criminal activity on Facebook. The magazine revealed that the students used Facebook to exchange messages about “alcohol, drunken driving, illegal hunts, guns, and vandalism and feckless law-enforcement officers” (p. 8).  While little data exists about the extent to which students reveal criminal activity on the site, significant anecdotal evidence suggests that students often willingly share information about such behaviors as sexual activity and alcohol and drug use.  For example, when a New York Times reporter was working on a story about abuse of the drug Adderall at Columbia University, he interviewed more than 20 students because of their membership in the Facebook group, “Adderall, You’re Breaking My Heart”.

With all of this information available, college and university officials in public safety and judicial affairs offices are increasingly turning to the site to gather evidence about violations of the law and the institution’s code of conduct.   At Penn State, campus officials used pictures on the Facebook group I rushed the Field After the OSU Game (And Lived!) to identify and discipline more than 50 students who had rushed the football field after PSU defeated Ohio State last fall.  In November 2005, The Northerner reported that Northern Kentucky University fined four students for posting pictures of a drinking party in a residence hall on Facebook. In another example, according to Ohio University’s student newspaper, The Post, a student Resident Assistant was terminated for posting photographs of underage drinking in the residence halls.

Unsurprisingly, such actions by college and university administrators cause a great deal of consternation among college students who repeatedly claim violations of privacy.  While efforts to collect evidence via Facebook may be viewed as an invasion of private space, there is nothing illegal about college officials using the site to collect evidence about student behavior.  A judicial affairs officer has the same opportunity and access as a fraternity brother to browse the site, peruse pictures, and read postings. In many ways, posting information to Facebook is no different than posting the information on a public bulletin board.  Once posted, there exists no expectation of privacy — who reads the information cannot be controlled.  This situation raises questions about a university’s obligation to provide students with a certain level of internet literacy.

As universities venture into the regulation of online behavior, they do need to be cautious of their own activities.  Some campuses no longer simply use Facebook to collect evidence about reported code violations, but actually assign a student or public safety officer to monitor activity on the site.  When an institution begins actively monitoring the site, it may begin to assume a responsibility (and legal liability) for activities that occur on Facebook.  (Some readers may recall a similar issue in the late 1990s when the National Panhellenic Conference asked the institutional Panhellenic Councils to stop actively monitoring sorority social events because of the potential liability involved with assuming responsibility for monitoring student behavior).  On Facebook, institutions may create an expectation that the university is obligated to provide them with a safe and harassment free environment – when in fact the university is really only looking for alcohol violations such as underage drinking or drinking in a “dry” residence hall.

Keep in mind that collecting evidence may be legal, but the evidence collected may not always be legitimate. Pictures do not always prove action or intent.  Merely holding a red plastic cup does not mean alcohol was being consumed.  Further, what if after punishing a student for drinking in his residence hall room you discover on Facebook a picture of the same student clearly drinking in the hall?  One should be cautious of such evidence. Is this a picture of the same event, for which the student was already sanctioned, or a different violation? If a student posts a caption suggesting a student with a funny look in the picture is stoned in a residence hall, does this mean the student was smoking marijuana on campus? Not necessarily, the person may never have smoked pot and the caption may only be an attempt at humor.

As a still emerging phenomenon, the legal concerns of Facebook and other social networking sites remain ambiguous.  Issues such as harassment and the posting of threatening speech are likely to be some of the major legal issues to arise in the future; particularly when both public and private universities seek to manage the speech of their students and other community members on Facebook.

With millions of college students now using the Facebook site, student affairs administrators need to be aware of the site and understand its role on college campuses.  In many ways, the site serves a very valuable function of creating a campus community (albeit a mostly unregulated one).  However, it can also be a useful tool for campus administrators to investigate potential violations of the law or student code of conduct.  These administrators need to remember, however, that the same protections and freedoms granted students in the physical world also apply in the virtual one.

Summary Points for Administrative Consideration

  • Even though each Facebook site restricts access to members based on their .edu web address, the information provided on the site is available for public consumption.  College and university administrators can use the site to collect evidence about possible violations to the student code of conduct or the law.
  • There is a difference between using the site to collect evidence and actively monitoring the site for potential code violations. When universities actively monitor student activity on Facebook they may begin to assume responsibility (and thus liability) for activities conducted on the site.
  • Public institutions must respect student’s freedom of speech rights. So long as students not in engage in unprotected speech such as that which is libelous or threatens the health and safety of another, students have a right to say (or post) whatever they choose – even if an institution does not like it.
  • Institutions must be judicious in how they use evidence collected on Facebook.  Simply holding a red cup does not prove alcohol consumption by a minor.  Sometimes it may be best to simply use the evidence to have a conversation with the student about appropriate behavior, rather than trying to use it to determine responsibility for a code violation.


  • Jones, H. & Soltren, J. H. (2005). Facebook: Threats to privacy.  Unpublished
    Manuscript, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
  • Skip C. & Kim, T. (2006, March 20).  Church burnings: What we did last night.
    Newsweek, p. 8.

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