a federal judge has ruled against a former student of Millersville University of Pennsylvania who was denied her college degree because of an unseemly online photo and its accompanying caption found on her social network profile.Forget losing your job, apparently your MySpace or Facebook profile and photos can now cause you to lose your degree. In what may be one of the most frightening rulings regarding social networks and privacy to date,
The Case of "Drunken Pirate," Stacy Snyder
The woman, Stacy Snyder, sued Millersville in 2007. Snyder was student-teaching at a high school, but had received poor evaluations regarding her professionalism in the classroom. Before her semester-long teaching assignment was up, she was barred from campus. However, it was not the negative reviews that caused her to be barred nor were they responsible for the loss of her degree. It was a MySpace photo.
In the photo, Synder was posed standing with a cocktail. The caption read "drunken pirate." It was accompanied by a note which made reference to her supervising teacher. That led to the school's decision to end her assignment, which in turn meant she now no longer qualified for her bachelor's degree in education.
Instead, the university reclassified some academic credits and gave Synder a degree in English. She appealed the decision and lost. She then decided to sue. The judge, Paul S. Diamond of the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, dismissed her free-speech claims, saying that employees' free speech is only protected if it relates to matters of public concern. Synder's criticism of her supervisor did not.
University president, Francine McNairy, agreed with the decision. "This was not about First Amendment rights, it was about performance, and she clearly did not do what was necessary in order to earn a degree in education," she said.
Was The Photo Really To Blame?
Given Synder's history in this case, the photo of her drinking and the accompanying note may not be really to blame for her lack of degree. In a way, they were just the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. If Synder had been a good employee (student teacher) up until the point the photo had been discovered, she probably would have been disciplined, but not let go, and thus would not not have lost her degree.
However, given her prior negative reviews, the photo simply gave the school an excuse for what they wanted to do all along - fire Stacy Synder. It was tangible evidence of her unprofessionalism in a way that subjective performance reviews are not. She may have been able to argue with the university that her supervisor had a personal problem with her, or something of the like, had her negative reviews come up in a decision regarding her degree. A photo is not as easy to explain away.
Lesson Learned: Use Privacy Controls On Your Social Network Profile
Synder's real mistake in this situation was not knowing or choosing to turn on any sort of privacy controls on her social network profile page. Given that the photo was found on her MySpace profile, it could have easily been kept out of sight from her supervisors and administrators at the university. It never needed to come into play.
MySpace profiles can easily be set to "private" which would have prevented anyone except those who were accepted as Synder's friends to have access to the items she posted. Facebook also offers extensive privacy controls that should be configured, especially if your profile is being used for more business networking type purposes.
Don't Be So Quick To Criticize
Although it may be easy to criticize Synder based on the information we've learned so far - negative performance reviews, distasteful photos - the truth is that many younger teachers disagree with their their older supervisors, which could have led to the bad reviews.
In fact, if you take the time to review the judge's decision (PDF), you'll see that Synder's "unprofessionalism" that was cited in those reviews came from accusations that she exhibited "over-familiarity with her students," and "had difficulty maintaining a formal teaching manner." Really? A college student teaching a high school class? Shocking. In addition, it seems that students knew of her MySpace page and checked it regularly, another unseemly violation of a teacher's ethical code, in the eyes of her supervisor.
Ironically, one of Synder's MySpace postings in question began,
I have nothing to hide. I am over 21, and I don't say anything that will hurt me (in the long run). Plus, I don't think that they would stoop that low as to mess with my future.
MySpace Lost Synder Her Degree
Synder may have needed more coaching in how to be a professional - the very thing that student-teaching is designed for - but it hardly negates her years of completed course work towards her education degree. So in the end, it really was her MySpace mistake that lost her the degree after all. And if that isn't a tale that has you rushing out to manage your profile page's privacy settings right now, then it's hard to imagine what will.