72 groups ask Education Department, colleges to crack down on Yik Yak

Office of Civil Rights to investigate school for response to online threats

Seventy-two women's and civil rights organizations on Wednesday asked the Education Department to require colleges and universities to protect students from harassment on anonymous social media apps.

At a press conference, the groups called for federal guidelines on how to defend students from online threats based on race, sexual orientation, and gender.

In the past year, more than 12 people have been arrested for threats made on Yik Yak—but only for threats of mass violence against colleges. The 72 groups want schools to act on other types of behavior as well.

How campus police use Yik Yak to solve crime

The Office of Civil Rights has agreed to investigate a Title IX complaint filed in May by two of those groups, Feminists United on Campus and the Feminist Majority Foundation, that the University of Mary Washington did not properly respond to threats against students on Yik Yak last year.

Feminists United say the harassment—including rape threats—began after they protested a lewd chant by the school's rugby team and questioned whether Greek life increases sexual assaults. In the spring, student and Feminists United board member Grace Rebecca Man was murdered. Man's housemate at the time was charged with her murder—and though evidence does not link her death to Yik Yak threats, many see a connection.

Did Yik Yak threats foreshadow a student's murder?

"The burden needs to be on administrators [not students] to monitor this, and to report it and to take it seriously," says Debra Katz, lawyer for Feminists United.

But that is a complicated task, says Will Creeley, VP of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

The Supreme Court has affirmed the right to anonymous speech and public colleges must follow the First Amendment. Determining what falls into the narrow exemption categories of defamatory or threatening speech "is beyond the competency of colleges," Creeley says.  

Requiring colleges to monitor the digital space is a bad idea, says Tracy Mitrano, a technology and legal issues consultant. "They are being asked to control things out of their control."

Instead, schools should work to change campus culture with education, counseling services, and student group or Greek-like partnerships, she says.

Professors hijack Yik-Yak, spread positive messages

Yik Yak says it is working to improve safeguards, such as filters, pop-up warnings, in-app reporting, suspensions, and moderations.

However, Katz says that is not enough. "None of these approaches has succeeded in addressing the program" (Logue, Inside Higher Ed, 10/22; Nirappil, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 10/21).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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