Towson Twitter ban comes as legislators move to protect student freedoms

Towson coach Rob Ambrose says he's trying to protect players from violating NCAA rules

February 13, 2012|By Chris Korman, The Baltimore Sun

Towson's resurgent football season ended when wide receiver Ryan Spadola had 13 catches — a Johnny Unitas Stadium record —to help Lehigh beat the Tigers in the playoffs in December.

The next week, Spadola didn't even play. He'd been suspended by the NCAA because he used a racial slur in a message he sent out on Twitter prior to the Towson game.

Towson coach Rob Ambrose, having seen how Twitter could hurt a team, decided to spend the first few weeks of the offseason monitoring his players' use of the social media tool and quickly decided to ban it until he felt his players had been properly educated on using it.

At about the same time that Ambrose came to his decision, though, a group of Maryland legislators introduced a bill that would prevent colleges and universities from monitoring students' social media activities. Senate bill 434, presented two weeks ago, would make it illegal for schools to force students to make their tweets public, or to require them to "friend" coaches or other officials on Facebook. A hearing on the bill, which has bipartisan support, is scheduled for Feb. 29.

Coaches and athletics officials who carefully monitor what players say to reporters have struggled to react to new technology allowing athletes unfiltered communication with the public. As they try to protect the reputation of their institutions — and in some cases avoid NCAA violations — they're drawing attention from lawyers worried about defending the First and Fourth Amendments.

Bradley Shear, a Bethesda-based lawyer and social media expert, said many schools have gone too far. Their requests that students make information public or install software meant to monitor their actions is not only a breach of free speech and privacy but also sets a dangerous legal precedent for the schools, Shear said.

"Obviously, this is not the right thing to do for the students," he said. "But what schools don't understand is the sort of liability they are taking on by doing this."

Shear uses the death of Virginia student Yeardley Love as an example. Had the University of Virginia been monitoring her social media use and failed to identify troubling messages, or if it had monitored the football team but not the women's lacrosse team, it could be found negligent and face millions of dollars in damages.

As for Ambrose's rule — and he's hardly the first coach to ban Twitter; former Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams once asked that his players not use it during the season, and other football coaches have called for a full prohibition — Shear said it "clearly violates the Constitution."

"Not being allowed to tweet out plays or getting in trouble for saying something about the coaches? That's fine," he said. "But for Towson University, a public university, to say that you can't talk about eating a Snickers in your dorm room? This is the United States of America. That's simply not allowed."

Sen. Ron Young, a Democrat representing Frederick and Washington counties, sponsored bill 434 — and parallel legislation that would prevent managers from monitoring employees' social media accounts, or those of applicants — said that unfamiliarity with modern technology has allowed those in charge to take steps that amount to "more eroding of constitutional rights."

"It's like saying, 'Can I go to your house and read your mail?'" he said. "It's getting into a dangerous area, and those incremental losses of freedom, where does it stop?"

Young tried to pass similar legislation toward the end of last year's session and was unable to; he's unsure of whether the two bills will get the support needed this time around.

"I think it's so important. College students are saying stupid things on there, they are using it wrong," he said. "That stuff will be there forever. But you simply can't put that sort of control in, and I don't think a lot of older people understand it enough to see the problem."

Towson's Ambrose, whose mother is a Maryland district court judge, said Monday he had no plan to permanently bar his players from using Twitter.

"Yeah, I took pretty drastic action," he said. "But for me, it was the cold water on the face to get their attention. This is something that needs to be talked about, because these kids can't just keep using this form of communication without really understanding how to use it."

Ambrose said that he has addressed the use of Twitter in recent team meetings and that the school will bring in a speaker to discuss the issue. When Ambrose feels his players understand the public and permanent nature of what they post, he will lift the ban.

Mike Harris, a senior associate director of athletics at Towson, said that the department's policy is to educate athletes on the proper use of social media and that any decision on monitoring or banning its use is made by individual coaches.

The Towerlight, Towson's school newspaper, reported players took to Twitter to say their goodbyes.

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