University of Rhode Island Considering Rule to Prohibit Students from Publishing ‘Sensitive Material’ (@SPLC)

According to a new Student Press Law Center report, the University of Rhode Island is considering adding a policy to the student handbook that would “prohibit students from publishing photos or video of ‘sensitive material’ such as criminal or violent acts.”

School officials’ intentions are apparently noble, an attempt to stop or more easily punish any student engaging in the type of cyber bullying that led to Tyler Clementi’s death at Rutgers University in fall 2010.  But the policy itself troubles a number of interested parties.

SPLC attorney advocate Adam Goldstein dismisses the proposed rule as “vague and overbroad,” without any chance of being recognized by the courts.  The university’s student senate president separately criticizes it as a potential vehicle by administrators to “keep an incident quiet.”

Many questions remain: What exactly constitutes sensitive material?  And perhaps even more importantly, who decides?  Would it include students cursing up a storm?  Underage students drinking?  Students partying without a permit?  Jaywalking?  Saying bad things about the school?  Making out in public?  Roughhousing?  And why should the school have the right to censor or punish students for publishing a photo or video that would otherwise be allowable by law?  Separately, what about conflicts of interest in respect to censoring ‘sensitive’ incidents involving faculty or staff?  What about freedom of speech and freedom of the press?  And how will students who create satirical or fictional photos and videos involving sensitive material be dealt with?  Has the impact on student journalism and creative work even been considered?

My Take: The Clementi incident is a tough one to swallow, equally sad and infuriating.  But as the saying goes, hard cases make bad law.  In the words of Wikipedia, the saying’s “meaning is that a particularly unpleasant case is a poor basis for a general law which would cover a wider range of less extreme cases.”  To URI administrators, don’t let your emotions or intentions get in the way of student rights.  Drop the policy or dramatically flesh it out so that legal experts and others can better judge its merits.

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