This Professor Learned the Hard Way That Emails to Students Are Far From Private

News and views from academia.
Oct. 23 2013 12:27 PM

Classroom Confidential

Should professors have any expectation of email privacy?

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students?

Photo by Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, was stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous if impetuous email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email, which blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout, appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s “highly partisan” comments.


Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

“This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience,” Slocum said in an email. “And I didn't expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn't you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.”

Politics aside, Slocum’s case and others like it in recent months raise an important question: In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students?

Very little, said Slocum—but that’s “an acknowledgement of fact, of the way the Internet works, rather than a normative statement.”

Privacy and intellectual property experts agreed, saying that such communications are fair game for students to share. Higher education has a complicated relationship with copyright and other ownership questions, experts said, due to historical concerns about academic freedom. Legally, however, most all of what professors say to students in lectures and in emails would pass the "fair use" doctrine test, making it OK for students to record, share, and comment on even copyrighted material for noncommercial purposes.

“All of us,” professors included, “have to figure out what our expectations should be in an age of smartphones and the Internet,” said Jessica Litman, a professor of law and information at the University of Michigan who specializes in intellectual property.

If Slocum was exposed via Twitter, YouTube was the medium of unwitting choice for William Penn, a tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University. His teaching duties were reassigned after he embarked on what’s been described as an anti-Republican “rant” on the first day of class in August.

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

In Penn’s case, a student anonymously videotaped the incident, which went largely unnoticed by the university until the video surfaced on the conservative website Campus Reform and on YouTube about a week later. To date, an edited version of the video has been viewed more than 173,000 times.

Penn’s suspension from teaching and the details surrounding the incident prompted concern from faculty and free speech groups, such as the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, as well as his fellow professors at Michigan State. The Faculty Senate there has formed an ad hoc committee to examine social media usage in the classroom, through the lens of academic rights and responsibilities. Penn did not respond to request for comment on this article.

Sue Carter, professor of journalism and faculty senate chair, said in an emailed statement: “I anticipate the members will provide guidance on the subject including First Amendment rights, intellectual property, privacy and notification. Our swiftly changing technology makes this a rich, but complicated environment.” 

But Litman said it would be hard to argue that Penn’s speech could be considered intellectual property protected by copyright, which she called a “red herring” in the discussion.

“Copyright doesn't protect extemporaneous utterances unless they are recorded with the permission of their author—here, the speaker—so he would have no copyright claim,” she said.



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