"Freedom of Tweets" – Social Media in the Law & Ethics of Mass Comm Classroom

By Chip Stewart, Texas Christian University

In the Law & Ethics of Mass Communication course, every day is Social Media Day. However, rather than teaching students how to use social media tools, we instead focus on the legal and ethical ramifications of these tools. This material is deliberately interwoven into each of the course’s units through two teaching methods.

The first is daily “Show-and-Tell” at the beginning of class, usually a 10- to 15-minute period during which students are rewarded with participation points for bringing new topics related to the law and ethics course for discussion. This way, we do not have to wait until a particular unit of the course to discuss hot new items that are of concern to the students, who are generally quite plugged into social media. The professor comes prepared with an item or two as well, in case the students miss a major law and social media happening.

The second method is a final paper assignment on a current topic or trend in mass communication law or ethics. These topics are approved by the professor and must be about a case, dispute or other ethical dilemma arising in journalism, advertising, public relations or involving freedom of speech in general that is ongoing or has happened in the past year. While not all topics are necessarily focused on social media, several are, including recent papers on Lenz v. Universal Music (regarding copyrighted music, YouTube videos and takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), the Italian prosecutions of Google executives for violations of the country’s privacy law for delay in taking down a video of teenagers harassing an autistic child, and prosecution of a man for criminal offenses relating to his posting of police locations via Twitter during the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh in 2009.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others are woven into the curriculum from the start of the semester, as we talk about media ethics and codes of various professional organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Advertising Federation, the Public Relations Society of America. These codes make no specific reference to social media, but social media implications must be considered as we discuss these codes. For example, how does the Washington Post’s social media policy largely banning social media use by newsroom staff limit professional freedom and engagement with readers? What about the rogue Tweet by an ABC reporter about the president’s off-the-cuff (not to mention off-the-record) remark about Kanye West, which was clearly not intended by the president for public consumption?

As we talk about defamation, we get into the Communications Decency Act and its limits of liability on internet service providers, including Facebook and the infamous juicycampus.com. We discuss how statements made on Twitter and facebook can lead to liability for the poster, such as a defamation lawsuit by a fashion designer against Courtney Love, showing that one can be defamed in 140 characters or less. The old rules still apply to new technologies.

Social media has immense implications in the law and policy of privacy. When an honorary chair graced the class with a visit, the focus of the discussion was social media and privacy, particularly focusing on mobile devices and applications such as Foursquare and Gowalla, which reward users with badges, coupons or other prizes in exchange for reporting their locations and checking in at different areas. The discussion turned to how much privacy we surrender in the social media age, and the extent to which privacy is valued by modern culture. Also discussed were the risks of oversharing information, such as www.pleaserobme.com, a site dedicated to curing oversharing by informing visitors of the empty homes out there identified by vacationing homeowners on Facebook.

Additionally, the emergence of social media has huge implications for copyright law. In class, we go through the terms of use of sites such as facebook, YouTube and Flickr to show what rights are waived and what the policies are regarding defense of copyright. The recent demand of Constantin Films for YouTube to take down the popular Hitler meme videos, which include unauthorized use from Constantin’s film “Downfall,” provided an immediate example for us to discuss the fair use doctrine and its application in the social media environment. Similarly, when St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa was plagued by an unauthorized parody Twitter site last year, it provided opportunity to discuss application of the law of appropriation, the right of publicity, and parody.

Finally, we take special time in class to discuss pressing matters in professional practice. Because more than two-thirds of the students taking the course are majoring in strategic communication, we have discussions about formulating a social media policy for a public relations, advertising and/or marketing company. How should strategic communication professionals identify themselves when making comments using social media in support of, or on behalf of, a client? From whom should approval be required during crisis situations for social media posts? How should comment sections and fan pages be managed by social media coordinators? These topics were explored in more depth by visiting professionals during a school-wide Social Media Week this spring, and the course professor gave a talk to the local PRSA chapter regarding law and social media in the spring as well.

In essence, social media cannot be boiled down to an assignment, or even a week of emphasis, in a course involving law and ethics. It must be integrated into the entire course, with the relevance of law and policy of emerging media, including social media tools, in each section. The course must be adapted semester by semester, if not week by week, to accommodate the constantly changing technological world. This may be a challenge, but “Show-and-Tell” time and the final paper on a current topic allow us to cover social media issues well in my course.

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