Questions of Conduct: The Popularity of Social Networking Web Sites Is Shedding Light on the Increasing Complexities of Policing Student Behavior on Campus While Respecting Their Rights to Privacy and Free Speech

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When Jason Johnson, a student at the University of the Cumberlands in the eastern Kentucky hills, posted comments about his new boyfriend on his Myspace.com Web page, he unintentionally sparked a controversy that quickly embroiled the college, the president of the state senate and Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Along the way, the dispute has shed light on the complications of policing student behavior on campus while respecting their rights to privacy and free speech. Those complications have only been compounded by the students' nearly ubiquitous use of Internet social networks.

The Baptist-affiliated college, whose student handbook prohibits homosexual relationships, expelled Johnson, a 20-year-old theater arts major. Gay-rights organizations and some lawmakers responded by demanding that Gov. Fletcher veto $11 million in state funds for a new pharmacy program at the college.

Others, including the president of the state senate, defended the school's right to set its own rules for student behavior, pointing out that Johnson knew the rules before he enrolled.

Fletcher left the funding intact, but called on the state attorney general to seek a legal opinion on whether the Kentucky constitution permits tax funds to be used for programs at private schools.

Many legal experts say private colleges have the right to exclude students who fail to abide by the college's moral codes. But others say the Johnson drama underscores the changing landscape of student discipline, in which sites like Myspace and Facebook.com are playing an ever-increasing role.

The sites, which count their student users in the millions, are free and enable students and others to easily keep track of their friends--and their friends' friends--through an interlocking system of personal Web pages.

Students can also, however, use the sites to post embarrassing, objectionable or even incriminating photos and other content. It's a trend that is presenting new challenges for universities, education experts say.

Dr. Ruth Davison, interim director of the department of housing and residence life at the University of West Florida, says that when such photos are presented to university officials, it often means the university has to take action.

"Students have a right to privacy, no matter who they are and whether they go to a public or a private school," says Davison, a former student affairs consultant. "But what this young man was doing was not private. Myspace and Facebook are raising critical issues in how we deal with student behavior."

In other words, she says, had Johnson simply been telling his friends he was gay, the school may never have been moved to act. However, putting it on the Internet for the world to see publicized it in a way that may have forced the university's hand.

Davison says that, at most schools, administrators aren't looking to police students' moral choices or their relationships. Far more often, they are concerned about their health and safety. But in those areas, too, Myspace and Facebook are quickly altering the environment for student affairs professionals.

"I can't speak for administrators everywhere, but from my experience they don't want to know every detail of the private lives of their students," Davison says. "But sometimes the sites contain evidence that raise critical issues of health and even life and death."

For example, she says, it's one thing if an administrator hears reports that there may be beer in a particular dorm room, but it's a far more serious matter if the same dorm room appears in an Internet photo with a fridge full of booze.

The impact of the Internet goes well beyond such cases, Davison and other experts say. Students don't realize that the photos and prank-filled videos they post to the Web will stay there long after their freshman silly season is over.

"We're trying to help them understand that posting a photo on the Web can have long-term consequences," says Dan Anderson, director of university relations at Elon University in North Carolina. …