With Absolutely No Legal Basis To Do So, University Counsel Demands Yik Yak Take Down Posts, Turn Over User Info
from the cit.-'Acme-Messaging-Service-v.-Please,-We're-VERY-Upset' dept
Universities are still freaking out over the fact that some of their students are racists and assholes. But rather than deal with the inevitability that any decent-sized grouping of people will contain a percentage of both, they’ve opted to shoot the messenger: Yik Yak. Yik Yak provides a platform for anonymous postings that can only be seen by others within the same general location (1.5-10 miles). It also provides a voting system. With enough downvotes, a post is removed.
Despite these key ingredients, students and administrators are finding the app is to blame, rather than a portion of the people using it. So, they do ridiculous things like call for a ban of the app on campus — something almost completely unenforceable and ultimately futile.
In some cases, they opt for other unenforceable and futile efforts. The University of Rochester (NY) has discovered that local posts on Yik Yak contain a number of unsavory statements, including possible threats towards a student and racially-motivated activity. This has prompted a completely ridiculous response from the university’s legal team, which has “demanded” that Yik Yak do a number of things, including turn over a ton of information on users of the service.
UR senior counsel Richard S. Crummins last Thursday sent a letter to Yik Yak, a popular social networking app, making the demand for information, along with screenshots of the posts that UR wants to have identified…
Cummins’ [sic] letter demanded:
•Removal of certain offending posts that may remain on the Yik Yak application. And while there are apparently no such postings now on the site, this request would apply to any new ones concerning UR.
•The immediate disabling of the accounts of the users responsible for those posts.
•Any information in Yik Yak’s possession or control, including but not limited to names, email addresses, IP addresses, phone identifiers or other information that would help the university identify those users.
•Immediate and permanent removal of any and all use of the University of Rochester name from the Yik Yak application.
Yik Yak’s FAQ indicates that it won’t be doing anything Crummins has requested. It responds — like most online services — only to actual legal documents like court orders, subpoenas and warrants. What it doesn’t do (or at least is under no obligation to do) is delete posts, establish low-level prior restraint and divulge user information to PO’ed school administrators.
Sure, a lawyer may have written this, but it has no legal footing. Yik Yak could voluntarily do all of these things (or at least attempt to), but it is certainly not compelled to do so. Some of what’s being requested verges on the impossible — unless Yik Yak hires a team to police content solely for the University of Rochester, something it certainly won’t do because it would mean doing the same for every other offended entity that comes knocking.
And it should absolutely not turn over user information just because someone writes an angry letter. There are legal routes for this, and nearly all of them run through law enforcement. If the University of Rochester feels these threats are “legitimate” enough to engage its legal counsel in a round of pointless letter writing, why didn’t it skip this unnecessary step and just inform the authorities?
The answer to that question, it would appear, is wholly nonsensical:
[Dean of Students Matthew] Burns said that getting a court order requiring screenshots is a possibility, but UR’s focus is more one of trying to educate the campus community.
“What can we do as a community about this?” he said.
Doesn’t sound like much of a “community.” It doesn’t even sound like “education.” It sounds instead like administrators have already decided what’s best for the student body and that is asking a third party to turn over identifying data so it can move on with punishments for code of conduct violations. It doesn’t sound like the “student body” half of the community has been included in this discussion.
The university says it’s heard back from Yik Yak but has offered no further details than it’s “reviewing [Yik Yak’s] response.” This sounds like it got a solid “no” from the service, but hope springs eternal in those who believe they’re right, even when attempting to skirt legal requirements.
UR officials say that the offensive and threatening statements on this social media app are no longer posted…
Which isn’t really a concession on Yik Yak’s part as much as it is the voting system. A couple of lines buried at the bottom of the story may explain the vanishing of offending posts, as well as point out something actually useful being done about the offending posts — something that doesn’t involve firing warning shots across the First Amendment’s bow or demanding third party services acquiesce to demands usually made by law enforcement and backed by court orders.
Burns also said that students have formed a group, Take Back Yik Yak, that is trying to combat all the negative comments on the site with positive ones.
Fighting negative speech with more speech: a far more productive — and RESPECTFUL — effort. Fighting speech with speech doesn’t seem to be on the list of the administration’s options, despite its assertions about “education” and “community.” It would rather just shut things down, as is indicated by the dean’s “free speech, but…” statement.
Burns said that while UR is a strong believer in free speech, some of the postings constituted threats and were not protected speech.
I don’t think the administration is entirely clear on the extents of free speech. Sure, true threats aren’t protected by the First Amendment, but if the Yik Yak posts contained “true threats,” then why wasn’t law enforcement (which could obtain the user information the school is asking for) involved? One explanation is that the “threats” aren’t nearly as threatening as the university is making them out to be. Of course, now that it’s run out of options, the university may approach law enforcement to take this further, but its efforts so far haven’t involved anything more than misguided actions and idiotic demand letters. The students are winning this one — both those trying to stem the tide of offensive speech and those behaving poorly — while the university tries to wrestle the ethereal into submission using nothing more powerful than legal department letterhead.