When a cousin told me a few weeks ago that his son is a freshman at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I offered this unsolicited advice: "Tell him to watch what he expresses through social media."
My cousin, an executive for a long-haul trucking company, thanked me for the warning. However, his 18-year-old son said: "I know all about that stuff." After all, he has Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Having grown up with the technology, he is what is called a "social media native."
As I spoke with him, I was thinking about the case of Caleb Jamaal Clemmons. In February, Clemmons was a psychology major at Georgia Southern University when he wrote on Tumblr that "i plan on shooting up georgia southern. pass this around to see the affect it has. to see if i get arrested."
Three hours after the post, the 20-year-old was arrested on a charge of making a terrorist threat even though investigators found no hard evidence of an attack. Bail was set at $20,000. Too much for Clemmons or his mother to pay, he stayed in jail six months awaiting trial. A judge sentenced him to time served and five years of probation. Here is the tough part: As part of probation, he is banned from four counties, including the one where the university is located, and he is not permitted to use social media. He must undergo a mental health evaluation and complete a drug and alcohol test.
This perhaps is just the beginning of this young man's problems as a result of his threatening post on social media, his immaturity and his inability to think ahead.
Many of his supporters have signed a petition for his exoneration on change.org. The petition states that Clemmons' "whole life is beginning to unravel at its seams and may be ruined forever over one misconstrued post."
Clemmons is not the only social media native paying the price for a so-called misconstrued post. A Texas teenager served five months in jail for joking on Facebook that he planned to "shoot up a kindergarten." And a Massachusetts student was arrested after uploading a rap that included references to the Boston Marathon bombing.
Although a civil libertarian, I believe college students should be taught how to use social media judiciously. Simply put, some remarks, no matter how brilliantly the right of free speech is argued in defense, can do long-term damage or destroy your life.
Clemmons' supporters earnestly believe that online utterances and relations do not necessarily determine offline behavior. While agreeing, I know that in this age of hypersensitivity to terrorism and domestic gun violence, college officials will not tolerate students' incendiary and threatening posts.
And here is a surprise for many people: Experts say that even as more students are landing in trouble for incendiary posts, the majority of the nation's colleges and universities do not include Internet and social media etiquette in first-year orientation.
"The travesty of all of this is that people — especially young people — don't understand their digital interactions create tremendous legal consequences," Bradley Shear, a Maryland lawyer who specializes in social media and Internet law, told Inside Higher Ed, an online publication. "My philosophy is if you make a threat — whether it's a phone call, whether it's an email, whatever medium you utilize — the same law applies throughout. People, especially students, aren't given that type of education. … Students need to be apprised of the things that may happen if they utilize digital tools in a way that may create criminal issues or liability issues."
My informal survey of colleges and universities in Florida indicates that few include Internet and social media etiquette in first-year orientation. They are more concerned with the common litigious dangers such as rape, assault, and alcohol and drug abuse. And, of course, they want students to learn to manage their time and hone their study habits.
While these are obligatory concerns, institutions of higher learning also should include Internet and social media etiquette in first-year orientation for their own protection and for the greater good.