Free Speech, Social Media and Community Colleges: Let the Clash Begin

Free Speech, Social Media and Community Colleges: Let the Clash Begin
An interesting case arose this week over a community college student in North Carolina that posted a rant about a new campus policy on his Facebook page. The student was suspended for two semesters, but quickly reinstated amid a flurry of protests over his free speech rights.

Social media like Facebook has been in the midst of more than one free speech controversy in recent years. A community college student is in the center of this latest clash, after posting scathing remarks about a certain school policy directly on the school’s Facebook page. So where does free speech end and the rules of proper conduct begin? If one examines this particular case, he or she will quickly discover that the lines are still fairly muddy in this relatively new area of First Amendment rights.

About the Facebook Poster

Marc Bechtol is a 37-year-old marketing student at Catawba Valley Community College in North Carolina. According to NBC-2, Bechtol’s disgruntled attitude arose after he learned that his college was going to offer a debit card that doubled as a student identification card on campus. Bechtol alerted the school that he did not want the card, and that he didn’t want his personal information, such as his social security number, shared with financial entities outside the college. Bechtol said Catawba Valley agreed to his request.

And the Controversy Begins

However, it wasn’t long before Bechtol received the school debit card in the mail – and discovered that the financial company issuing the cards, Higher One Financial Services, did have access to his personal information, including his social security number. Bechtol also began receiving email offers for credit cards from other banks after the initial debit card was issued. In addition, Bechtol began receiving additional email marketing from Higher One, offering additional benefits with the new debit card.

Bechtol felt the advertising was somewhat misleading and didn’t paint the full picture of the requirements of the card – particularly for some of the younger students at the college who had not had as much experience in financial matters. Specifically, CTI Career Search reports that Bechtol was not clear on whether students could easily access their financial aid funding without actually activating the card. He explained that he activated his own card just for this purpose, even though he never wanted a debit card – or the account attached to the card – in the first place.

Making His Complaints Known

In response to the controversy, Bechtol took his concerns to the public online forum known as Facebook – specifically, to the Facebook page for Catawba Valley Community College. According to Campus Technology, Bechtol’s first Facebook post read:

"Anyone else’s inbox full of spam today? So did CVCC sell our names to banks, or did Higher One? I wonder if we’d like it if we registered them with every adult site known to man. Anyone know of any good viruses we could send them?"

A few minutes after the initial post, Bechtol tempered his comments with this follow-up, “Maybe that would be excessive.”

The Aftermath

The posts, published on September 28, were not met with any immediate response to the school. However, according to the Moral Liberal, Bechtol was escorted out of his classroom on October 4, handed a disciplinary letter and given a two-semester suspension for his actions. He was also banned from campus – all without any sort of hearing. NBC-2 reports that the letter called Bechtol’s Facebook post “disturbing” and “indicates possible malicious action against the school.”

Bechtol disagrees. He told the Shelby Star that his words were purely satirical in nature and that he was simply exercising his rights of free speech.

“There was no intent to do anything,” Bechtol told NBC-2. “No follow-up act to do anything. Obviously, I was venting frustration.”

After the suspension, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) came to Bechtol’s defense and persuaded CVCC to drop the suspension.

Catawba Valley Community College violated the First Amendment by responding to obviously hyperbolic criticism with swift and severe punishment,” FIRE stated in the report at CTI Career Search. “Marc Bechtol must be allowed to return to class.”

Policies and Punishment

According to Catawba Valley Community College, the punishment was a result of Bechtol’s violation of school policy. Another school, Cleveland Community College, told the Shelby Start that they have a similar code of conduct. If a student made a similar post to the one Bechtol made at CVCC’s Facebook page, that student would also be in violation of the conduct code.

“Just as CVCC, if we had something like this happen, it would be a student code of conduct violation versus a Facebook/freedom of speech issue,” Margo Greene, a spokesperson for Cleveland Community College told the Star. “Based on [Bechtol’s] comments, he was violating the [CCC] code of conduct.”

Consequences Rescinded

Despite the fact that Bechtol was suspended without a hearing on October 4, he was granted a hearing for his appeal on October 7. At that time, the school agreed to change its disciplinary measures against Bechtol, as long as he publicly expressed regret for his actions. Bechtol must also let the college know whenever he is using school computers.

Despite the decision by the college to let Bechtol back on campus and into his classes, FIRE says the school has not done enough to protect the free speech of students in the future. The organization told CTI Career Search that the school should rescind the claim that Bechtol violated school policy with his Facebook post.

In the meantime, Bechtol has stated that his time at Catawba Valley is growing short. He has applied to another school in North Carolina, in hopes of continuing his studies in international marketing on a different campus.

“My fight in this is over,” Bechtol told CTI. “I think I’ve done my part.”

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