Margaret Venable: Social media and First Amendment at Dalton State

Margaret Venable

During the last six years I’ve served as president of Dalton State College, there have been several times something shared on someone’s personal social media account has gained public attention because the posts offended others. The accounts and posts were not linked to Dalton State, but digital footprints led to the poster’s affiliation with the college.

This creates a tough situation. And I know Dalton State is not the only organization that has or will deal with such an incident.

However, Dalton State is different from a private business or even a private college. We are a government-funded, state college. Therefore, we’re bound to uphold the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and respect a person’s right to free speech, even when we disagree with what has been stated.

Each situation has been unique, but each is a tremendous challenge for us as an institution. An isolated incident, a post by an individual on a personal social media account, is not reflective of Dalton State or our campus culture. Yet some take one person’s actions and make broad generalizations assuming we condone language that goes against our very core values.

We take pride in our diverse, inclusive, caring, learning environment. It’s fundamental to who we are as an institution. Especially as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, these values are at the core of our college community; we believe strongly in them. You will find them listed on our website along with our mission and vision: www.daltonstate.edu/about/mission.cms. These values were developed by our campus community and they reflect who we are and aspire to be as an educational organization.

Social media is part of our culture, and it can be a powerful tool. But it can also be a powerful weapon and threat.

Numerous people upset by these social media posts have advocated Dalton State taking illegal actions against the original poster. Many of these people are not from our region and likely know nothing about our campus or the greater Dalton community. Some have even attempted to undermine the reputation of our college in an effort to induce us to punish someone for something that is not within the control or purview of Dalton State. Even worse, many of our employees have withstood personal attacks because of these situations over which we have no control.

These tactics against Dalton State are especially frustrating for those of us who love this college and have committed ourselves to serving our students and community in an inclusive and supportive way. The damage to the reputation of Dalton State can impede our efforts to recruit and retain the diversity of students and employees who play a critical role in the education we provide, an education that is needed now more than ever.

While some private colleges have policies in place that restrict some aspects of the personal lives of their students and employees, Dalton State does not have that same degree of discretion. With few exceptions (for example, committing a felony), we cannot legally punish a student or employee for outside activities we find offensive or that go against our core values. A lack of punishment, however, in no way means we condone the behavior.

Dalton State has conduct codes, and consequences are administered according to those policies, but there are very rare circumstances in which these codes reach into the private lives of our students and employees. Rather, our codes of conduct primarily pertain to activities that occur on our campus and at college-sponsored events. Our conduct codes do not supersede state or federal laws, including the U.S. Constitution. Our country’s Constitution protects us all, even those we disagree with. It is one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

A college campus is the environment for thoughtful and reasoned conversations about these controversial situations.

In the coming weeks, we will provide our students with opportunities to discuss critical topics such as the First Amendment, social media and student/employee codes of conduct. Our goal for these dialogues is to help ensure we continue to provide a diverse, inclusive, caring, learning environment. We respect the rights of our students and employees to free speech and strongly encourage those who participate in social media to do so responsibly. We stand ready to offer support to any student or colleague who may for any reason feel unwelcome.

Margaret Venable is president of Dalton State College.

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