While Facebook has revolutionized the way we communicate with each other by making information more open and sharable, users still find themselves beholden to the regulations of the environment in which they live when utilizing the technology — whether it’s their country, state, or school.
Taylor Moseley, a freshman at North Carolina State, found that out the hard way late last week. Moseley had started a Facebook Group whose purpose was to attract John Wall, the top-ranked high school basketball player from Raleigh, to attend N.C. State next year. After 700 people joined the group, Moseley received a cease and desist letter from N.C. State’s compliance director, Michelle Lee, warning of “further action” if he failed to take down the site since the Facebook group’s purpose violated NCAA’s recruiting policies, the Associated Press reported.
NC State didn’t enjoy playing bad cop, though. As the AP reported, the school merely enforced the NCAA’s recruiting rules, which haven’t been updated to address the emergence of social technologies like Facebook. As the incident unfolded, however, the NCAA claimed it had been progressive in rethinking its policies to accommodate technological advances, noting, for example, that it had put regulations in place for coaches who wanted to send text messages to prospective recruits.
We find that a weak argument, however. Regulating text messaging is straightforward because it’s a one-to-one communications medium. The social nature of a Facebook Group page, on the other hand, presents different challenges because it can be populated by regular students not involved in the official day-to-day operations of the team (like a coach).
The incident raises a slew of tricky issues for normal Facebook users. Like many Web-based technologies, Facebook has lowered the barriers to entry for someone who wants to be a publisher, organizer, businessperson, or, in this case, a booster for their college’s athletic program. While it’s tempting to think of Facebook as an isolated environment with its own laws and regulations, it ultimately operates under the existing rules we live under everyday.
That said, the handling of this incident seems (at best) over-the-top and (at worst) a stifling of the students’ right to free speech. If we all agree that the actions we take on Facebook should be subject to the rules of our governing bodies, then is the NCAA going to send cease and desist letters to every stranger who runs into John Wall (and playfully tries to sway his college of choice) while passing him on the street, in a restaurant, or at the movies?
Such a response would be viewed by our local communities as outlandish and a serious violation of our First Amendment rights. As extensions of our communities build their presences on Facebook, we shouldn’t be punished any more severely than we would in our day-to-day interactions.