Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Yik Yak. The breakneck speed at which the social-media world continues to grow and change presents an array of challenges for colleges and universities struggling to keep pace. Institutions face a difficult balance between boosting their social-media presence and steering clear of legal hot water and PR nightmares.

“There’s the feeling that everyone else is doing this, so let’s do this,” said Jacob Rooksby, assistant professor of law at the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh. But institutions must implement a thoughtful and systematic social-media approach that furthers educational goals while limiting liability, he said. Rooksby recently spoke at Stetson University’s National Conference on Law & Higher Education.

The 140-character limit on Twitter certainly doesn’t limit your institution’s exposure to claims of defamation or other areas of liability, Rooksby said. In fact, your institution won’t get off the hook just by shifting the blame to staff or faculty members who use institutional social-media accounts, he said.

And some students’ posts would make any higher ed administrator cringe. Hateful and disrespectful speech about faculty, staff and other students isn’t anything new. But the platform has changed. Instead of whispers and notes heard and seen by a few, social-media posts instantly appear before thousands on Yik Yak or Twitter, and often anonymously. Banning a particular platform won’t solve the problem, Rooksby said.

Gain perspective

“Some of the most important speech is anonymous. And hate speech is not punishable under the Constitution unless it rises to the level of defamation or a true threat,” Rooksby said.

The best starting point is developing social-media policies/guidelines, he noted. Don’t assume existing policies cover social media. Ensure policies define what’s covered, what’s not, and whether and to what extent policies address student and employee activity, he said.

Your institution should also coordinate its social-media activities, which happens at very few institutions. “There’s really no one in charge. Think of the benefit of brand. Corporations have entire departments overseeing social media,” Rooksby said.

Many institutions have lost track of how many accounts bear their institution’s name or other identifying marks, or which institutional representatives actively represent the institution on social media, he said. Such a lack of awareness could bring all kinds of trouble to bear on the institution, he warned.

Use social media for branding

Instead, your institution can harness the power of social media for branding, promotion and reputation. Here’s how, according to Rooksby:

  • Identify a social-media coordinator and create a social-media hub. For example, Harvard University’s website has a social-media page that lists all its social-media accounts so people can connect to them from one central place.
  • Manage the message. Ensure your institution creates and uses its very own hashtag. It can be a valuable opportunity to take back control, have influence, and overcome the negatives on social media.
  • Reclaim your institution’s name. Find out if student organizations or others use your institution’s name/insignia/logo in their Twitter handle or Facebook page. Then, reclaim it. Otherwise, consumers could reasonably believe the other party is your institution. If your reclaiming efforts are met with free speech concerns, explain they can continue saying whatever they want, but you’re acting to prevent confusion and to protect your trademark.

Conduct social-media training, review

Annual social-media training and review sessions can help ensure your institution has a safe and effective plan for handling social media, Rooksby said. Invite staff and faculty members responsible for maintaining institutional social-media accounts or contemplating creating new ones.

Rooksby suggested asking your institution’s social-media coordinator, legal counsel, public relations/marketing staff, or information technology director to give presentations on the following key topics:

  1. Institutional vs. personal accounts.
    • Emphasize that institutional social-media accounts are maintained and operated by faculty or staff for the good of the institution. When using personal social-media accounts, faculty and staff should take care to distinguish they’re not speaking for the institution.
    • Institutional accounts should bear institutional trademarks, but personal accounts should not. Institutional users must not “like” products, candidates or political causes.
    • Some states have laws prohibiting employers from requiring employees to provide log-in/password credentials for social-media accounts or accept their friend requests. Many laws don’t cover shoulder searches, which means a supervisor could ask an employee to pull up her Facebook page at work. But Rooksby discourages that practice because less knowledge is better when it comes to your employees’ private social-media use, he said.
  2. Account logistics.
    • Explain how to select appropriate names for institutional accounts across platforms (e.g., you want @university’s name to be the Twitter handle for the institution, not the fencing team).
    • Review the platforms and accounts your institution uses, as well as known or perceived limitations of activity.
    • Identify the social-media coordinator who keeps the central repository of institutional accounts.
    • Emphasize maintaining accurate, up-to-date access information for all institutional social-media accounts.
    • Establish communication channels between everyone responsible for institutional social-media accounts to encourage uniformity and prevent overlap.
    • Discuss how each institutional account relates to others.
    • Explain procedures for establishing new accounts within established platforms versus establishing new accounts within emerging platforms.
  3. Institutional rules and norms.
    • Review your institution’s social-media policy, guidelines and goals. Note how they intersect with other policies, such as student conduct codes and faculty policies.
    • Discuss positive social-media events that supported your institution’s social-media goals.
    • Review lessons learned from recent negative social-media events involving your institution.
    • Emphasize the importance of accuracy, transparency (of identity), respect, timeliness, sensitivity and interconnectivity in all institutional social-media use.
    • Remind everyone of the permanence of online posts.
    • Address how academic freedom and freedom of speech apply to social media. It doesn’t mean faculty/staff can post whatever they want and the institution can’t object or respond to it.
  4. Legal concerns.
  5. Advise institutional social-media account users to take the following steps to help reduce risk of liability, including defamation and privacy violations:

    • Obtain written consent from photographed individuals whenever possible, or at least verbally ensure they know their images could appear on social media. Avoid portraying the views/beliefs of others.
    • Don’t publicly disclose private facts about others, or anything that’s offensive.
    • Don’t post content that’s negative, derogatory, and could be proven false.
    • Ensure accessibility for all, especially if social-media use is required to fulfill curricular or cocurricular activities.
    • Limit posting others’ material and always provide attribution. Even better, link to the original or ask permission.
    • Don’t rely on disclaimers to prevent defamation claims. For example, it’s not enough to state on your profile page, “All views expressed are my own. Retweets do not imply endorsement,” or to preface insulting posts with “In my opinion….”
    • Balance privacy versus safety concerns. Don’t let unnecessary fears of privacy violations keep you from sharing your concerns about a student’s post. “These are your thoughts about someone else and you can act on those,” especially when it concerns a public post, Rooksby said. In fact, you have a duty to respond, he said. “The risks are definitely greater in not reaching out,” he said.

Craft sound social-media policies, guidelines

The fact that social-media platforms change so quickly only underscores the critical need for carefully crafted social-media policies and guidelines.

“It’s somewhat tricky to write a set of policies that will apply for the future without being so broad that it will be meaningless,” Rooksby said. He said social-media policies/guidelines can play a critical role by:

  • Protecting your institution’s reputation. You don’t want a disgruntled employee using your Twitter handle to send out insulting posts, for example.
  • Promoting brand uniformity and strategic engagement with constituents.
  • Preventing surprise in the event of litigation.
  • Minimizing personnel issues.

To develop effective social-media policies/guidelines for your institution, consider following Rooksby’s tips:

  • Address overarching concerns instead of tying policies/guidelines to any specific platforms.
  • Use wording that’s easy to understand and follow. Steer clear of anything too long or unwieldy to actually enforce, or so vague or broad that it could come across as impinging on academic freedom or values.
  • Consider “time/place/manner” restrictions/guidelines instead of a banned-words list that is difficult to enforce. For example, you might require student-athletes to refrain from social-media posts two hours before or after games.
  • Ensure institution-wide distribution and awareness of the policies/guidelines.
  • Determine how you’ll decide whether questionable posts cross the line and become a violation. Consider whether the posts violate any professionalism codes or rise to the level of a true threat, defamation or harassment.
  • Clearly articulate any ramifications for ignoring applicable policies/guidelines.

Jacob Rooksby provides social-media audits, trainings and consultations for institutions. You may contact him at rooksbylaw@gmail.com.