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8. The right to have your say 


This section at a glance:


  • we look at how social media is opening up a new debate around HEIs' traditional role in promoting freedom of speech and academic freedom; 
  • we look at examples of universities dealing with criticism and/or controversy; 
  • we look at the extent to which social media channels can ever be controlled.
It is unsurprising that, given the nature and values of the higher education environment [1], matters relating to academic freedom and freedom of speech are particularly prevalent and contentious in relation to the use of social media. From an institutional perspective the issues relate to the extent to which the institution might be held legally responsible for the virtual actions of its staff and students and the extent to which such actions reflect on the image of the institution. In Sections 9, Legal issues, and 10, When it goes wrong, we look at situations where online behaviours go beyond the bounds of normal acceptability to the extent where they are illegal and/or constitute harassment of others. There are however many more grey areas, where the right to express certain opinions using certain social media channels is more contentious.

Keele University came in for a lot of publicity in 2007 for allegedly attempting to silence student criticism on Facebook. Following the creation of a Facebook group that was formed as a focus for derogatory comments about a particular lecturer, the University issued a written warning to some individuals and followed this up with a more general email to all students. This provoked a backlash of responses suggesting the University was trying to impose a blanket ban on negative comment and that, for instance, commentary on the Vice Chancellor's pay rise was being treated in the same way as defamatory comments about individual lecturers. The matter does not however appear to have done any lasting harm to the institution's relations with its students as later the same year, Keele students won a competition entitled The battle for the UK's favourite university, hosted by O2 via Facebook.

Student publicity can indeed have its upside:

    The University of Lincoln only discovered that media production student, Tom Ridgewell, had made a series of “TV adverts” about the University and posted them on YouTube when other people started blogging about them and talking about them at open days. The adverts, featuring zombies, dinosaurs and blazing lecture theatres, were far from typical University marketing material. They were branded as “banned adverts”: Tom admits they had not actually been banned but said that if he had asked for permission from the University before uploading them to YouTube he probably would not have received it. Tom was later commissioned to carry out work for the marketing department.

    “The public response has been fantastic. The amount of people claiming that Lincoln is now their number one choice just makes me want to lead a conga line through the university's marketing department.”

A 2011 article in the Guardian looked at the issue of institutional reputation in the face of student comment. They interviewed the recently appointed digital and online communications manager for the University of Warwick who said their communications team checked what was being said about the University on social media once or twice a day but would generally only respond where there was a request for information and would only respond to comments on certain networks:

    “If they are on the Student Room we assume they want to bitch about us behind our backs. If it is on a much more public space like Twitter or Facebook, someone like us can see it and respond.

A research project in Australia (Rowe 2014) tried to address the fact that universities were struggling to balance freedom of speech and the right to express an opinion with reasonable expectations of responsible and respectful behaviour by students, as well as the protection of staff and students. It found that dealing with inappropriate posts could be time-consuming and costly and that the situation was legally and ethically complex. For example, when an inappropriate post is made from a student account and the account owner claims somebody else “must have got hold of my password”, or when an offensive post is made anonymously but another identifiable student likes the comment – is it appropriate and fair to take action against the second student when the original perpetrator is unidentifiable?

Universities UK (2011) cites the example of a university student who was a member of the British National Party (BNP) displaying racist and offensive posts by others on his MySpace page. The police looked into the matter but found the posts not actionable under the law. The student also displayed his university affiliation so the university felt associated with the offending material. The university invoked its equality and student disciplinary policies to get the material removed.

“The material was not clearly illegal so although we did not have support from the police it was important for local and internal relations to act but also important not to overreact because the student did not actually write the material.”

The Australian research project worked with staff and students to develop a categorisation model for posts of varying degrees of offensiveness and the appropriate action to be taken. An adaptation of this is included in Section 9, Legal issues. A distinction was made between comments made on official social media sites belonging to a university and other sites. Students feel very strongly that it is not the place of the university to monitor and respond to comments made outside its official social media channels and resent the intrusion into their privacy. Staff generally agree (although less vehemently so than the students in the Australian survey). Active monitoring of non-university student-run sites could create the impression that all such sites are monitored and that the university will deal with any inappropriate behaviour. This is potentially very dangerous ground for a university if any illegal or particularly damaging comments are not picked up and dealt with (see the discussion on duty of care in Section 10,When it goes wrong). There is also the potential that actively monitoring and reacting to comments on unofficial sites could undermine the value and effectiveness of formal feedback mechanisms. Interestingly, students expressed the view that negative comments about an institution on social networks are often made for all manner of reasons, including attention seeking from peers, and do not necessarily constitute feedback a student would actually like the university to act on.

Imperial College recruits a team of official student bloggers to write regularly about their experiences at the university. They are not paid but there are occasional prizes for the most frequent bloggers. The bloggers receive regular emails from fellow students and prospective students who are keen to put their queries to a real student. The blogs are not moderated and the students do not feel restricted in what they can write.

“They can and do say negative things about us. When they do, it's useful feedback. It can also make the blogs more authentic – something that is particularly important to the social media generation.” (Pamela Agar, Imperial College 2011)

“I think there's possibly a line that you cannot cross, but you would have to be pretty determined to cross it. If I honestly felt negative about Imperial, I would write about it.” (Chris Fonseka, student blogger, Imperial College)

Academic blogging, and other forms of commentary via social media, is one of the more contentious areas. Debates about academic freedom are nothing new, but potentially controversial opinions that were previously restricted to a limited journal readership now have a much wider audience and frequently receive considerable media attention, as do comments made by academics about universities.

One of the most publicised cases concerned a former lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Eric Ringmar, who in 2006 posted to his blog a speech given at an open day in which he warned prospective students that academics tended to have their minds on research not teaching and that actual teaching would be done by PhD students. This prompted an oral warning under institutional disciplinary procedures and counter allegations of bullying for exercising the right to freedom of speech. The comments on a Guardian article on the matter indicate the divergence of opinion about Ringmar's actual comments and the University's response to them. Whilst it may seem clear that an academic speaking at a University open day is acting in a professional capacity, there are other situations where it may be less clear which hat an individual is wearing when critiquing policy decisions as highlighted below:

    “I am, for primarily professional purposes, a regular user of social media. However, when I use social media am I representing myself or my institution? My initial answer is, of course, myself. However, is it really possible to blog or to tweet, for example, in a wholly individual capacity that does not invoke in any way one's institutional affiliation? When I post an uncomplimentary tweet about current HE policy (see Figure 1), I do so as an individual academic expressing a personal opinion to those who follow me.


    Figure 1. Tweet articulating personal opinion

    However, might my tweet be perceived to be representing an institutional or possibly departmental viewpoint? In using social media to articulate a position hostile to a government policy that I may later have to help implement, am I not undermining the work of my department or institution? It is an ambiguous area that, as I will argue, clearly defined social media policies seek to address.” (McNeill 2012)

McNeill cites the above example as a good reason why universities are increasingly feeling the need to develop social media policies, but nevertheless goes on to say that the need to manage the risks posed through the use of decentralised communications media outside the institution’s control is leading, in many cases, to an overly managerial approach.

    “[university] social media policy appears to be less informed by an awareness of the implications for learning made possible by new forms of digital culture and is more informed by the discourse of marketization and “new managerialism”. Although many of the social media policies are appropriate for the purposes of corporate communication, they are, at best, problematic when applied to the messier business of learning, teaching and assessment. At worst, some of the social media policies analysed place serious constraints on academic autonomy and the possibilities for innovation, openness and sharing.” (McNeill 2012)

It is a moot point to what extent institutions can ever really hope to control the use of social media by staff and students. Indeed, attempts to do so may simply drive criticism underground to other channels or behind the screen of anonymity. In the case of Eric Ringmar and the LSE, mentioned above, the matter did not die down quickly – Ringmar went on to write a book on the topic[2] and to campaign on the issues as highlighted in this blog post in 2008:

    “Instead of taking down and destroying our blogs we should blog more sneakily, employing well established guerrilla tactics. We should duck, dive and dodge. Blog dirty, blog anonymously, change items around or claim they never existed; write in code, write in Bahasa Indonesia. Kick your boss once again on the shins, harder this time, and then run like hell. If they come looking for you, hide inconspicuously among ordinary internet users.” (Ringmar 2008)

In an article entitled Academics behaving badly? Universities and online reputations, Mewburn (2012) cites a number of cases in the US and Australia where academic staff have been fired as a result of activity on social media. She also notes that many of these cases had unintended consequences and generated considerably more publicity than they may have originally merited. Her message to universities being:

    “While I have sympathy with what the universities are trying to achieve in their policies, I wonder if much of this effort is misplaced. If you want to control your reputation on the internet, it’s far better to concentrate on learning how to react well to public criticism. If universities wish to attract the best minds, they should work on creating the appearance of being tolerant workplaces which encourage vigorous discussion and the exchange of ideas – even if they don’t always agree with them.

    There’s a lesson here for academics too. Nothing – not even a funny poem between friends – is private when just about everyone carries a publishing platform in their pocket. Expect to be tweeted when you give a lecture; don’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t be happy to appear on a webpage, or have read aloud to the Vice-Chancellor. And next time you feel like having a whinge about the university, or a colleague, pick up the phone and make a coffee date. It’s safer.” (Mewburn 2012)

There is evidently a need to clarify where professional ends and private begins, and to be clear about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour (we look further at this topic in Section 10, When it goes wrong) but it is equally clear that promoting and supporting examples of good practice is as important as defining what will not be tolerated.

Good practice tips:  

  • Define your context – relate your approach to social media to your existing position in an institution that has a legal responsibility to promote freedom of speech and academic freedom.

  • Be value-driven – emphasise your institutional values in guidance for staff and students.

  • Keep it simple – if you choose to have a policy, do not make it complicated – a simple policy of advising people not to say or do anything online that they would not do offline can suffice as guidance, as for example in these quotes from UCISA (2014a) Model Regulations: 

“Real world standards of behaviour apply online and on social networking platforms, such as Facebook, Blogger and Twitter.

“You must not cause needless offence, concern or annoyance to others.”

“The way you behave when using IT should be no different to how you would behave under other circumstances. Abusive, inconsiderate or discriminatory behaviour is unacceptable.” 

  • Decide how much you need to know – establish the extent to which your institution should monitor related but unofficial channels as well as its official social media channels and be aware of the risks in monitoring unofficial channels i.e. amplifying issues that might have gone relatively unnoticed and being seen to assume some liability for the actions of users in the spaces.
  • Stay positive – accept that you cannot control social media use and focus instead on presenting a positive image of the institution through your official channels and being seen as a supporter of legitimate debate.

  • Promote formal feedback – inform users about your formal feedback mechanisms and channels and actively encourage their use.

  • Intervene when you need to – use the guidance in Section 10, When it goes wrong, to evaluate and deal with inappropriate behaviour.




[1] The Education (No. 2) Act 1986 and the Education Reform Act 1988 give universities a legally defined role to secure freedom of speech and promote academic freedom.

[2] Ringmar, E. (2007) A Blogger's Manifesto: Free Speech and Censorship in the Age of the Internet, Anthem Press, London

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