Professors’ social media presence can be a great way to connect with friends and colleagues or a way for students to pry into their personal lives. Graphic by Madeline Woods

Point/counterpoint: Professors don’t have special privacy rights

Moderating what professor information students can and cannot look up is an impossible standard to uphold.

Let me put my on my old-man cap for a minute and yearn for the way things used to be. If you ask me, we have access to entirely too much information nowadays. You can play a thousand faux-inspirational IBM commercials, talk all you want about how great smartphones are, and social media, Google and all the rest, but it’s not going to change my tired old mind about one precept: that this sea of knowledge at our fingertips only makes us more miserable and leads to a host of annoying ethical dilemmas. I would give it all back just so we don’t have to be faced with the choice of whether to access the personal information of our professors.

Who’s being facetious, me? Okay, fine, you got me, I’m not that much of a Luddite. In the grand scheme of things, this is such a non-issue compared to all the benefits that technology has wrought in the 21st century, that it’s hardly even worthy of discussion. Of course, you should be able to look up your professors on Facebook and check out their favorite sports, TV shows and — gasp! — political views. That’s just the way things are in our modern, interconnected world.

There was a time when such details of a person’s private life were just that — private. Even after you went through that middle-school realization that your teachers were human beings who existed outside of the classroom, there was little difference in what you actually knew about them.

After all, if they kept to themselves and conducted their personal affairs in a non-public setting, you wouldn’t be any the wiser as to what went on behind closed doors. I suppose you could have spied on your teachers if you really wanted, but just as a general rule, following a person around the mall or hanging from the branches of a tree with a pair of binoculars is pretty bad form. That is what we call “invasion of privacy,” and crazily enough, it’s a concept that still holds up today. But you know what’s not invading somebody else’s privacy? Looking at their social media presence.

Over the past several years we’ve heard several stories of teachers getting in trouble or even losing their jobs over controversial statements they have made on Facebook or Twitter. Whether these punishments had merit is a question that we cannot answer with a sweeping generalization, as it requires looking at what was said on a case-by-case basis. But what we can establish is that, to some degree, all these teachers were hoisted by their own petard. It did not require the work of a private detective to unearth lurid details from their past; all it took was a quick glance at a publicly accessible status or tweet. That’s the whole point of social media: you’re putting something out there so that others can view it.

It’s true that we’ve all posted things that we might not want everyone to see. That picture of you in scantily-clad party attire might offend your grandmother, and your like of a pro-choice group would probably disappoint your pastor. Too bad! If you are willing to broadcast something on social media, you must be prepared for others to see and potentially judge you for it. All rights to privacy have been waived.

What’s the alternative here? Bar students from looking up their professors online? Putting aside the implausibility of such a measure being effective, it would be a terribly repressive and counterproductive one to implement. Not only would it be an imposition on students’ freedom, it would be giving educators free reign to say and do whatever they please, a license to act without fear of consequences. I can complain about the pitfalls of the information age all I want, but even I have to admit that it has a way of keeping us all accountable.

Of course, it must be noted that my last point could be taken to an extreme where it would then reek with fascistic undertones. Even as we hold people accountable for their actions, we must be cautious in adjudicating what is worthy of punishment, and what simply constitutes a diversity of opinion. This goes back to my earlier point of examining these cases in context, but we should make sure never to punish an individual simply for having an unpopular opinion (even if it is related to a contentious topic like religion or politics) that they express over social media.

The potential for finding out this type of personal information about your professors is always there if you choose to look into their private lives, and is representative of the balance and caution one must apply when doing so. By all means make use of the public record that is social media, just don’t go in thinking you are going to like everything you are going to see.

Post Author: Justin Guglielmetti