A coalition of 72 civil rights organizations which includes prominent feminist and LGBTQ groups has asked the Department of Education to force colleges to monitor or ban anonymous social media apps such as Yik Yak.
In a letter sent to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the groups claim sexist and racist posts made by some of Yik Yak’s users are in violation of Title IX and Title VI, the federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex or race at federally-funded schools.
“Anonymous social networking applications are becoming increasingly popular on college campuses and have given perpetrators an easy platform for online harassment, including cyberstalking, cyber-threats, and other forms of cyber-assault,” the groups’ letter said. “The severity of this problem on college campuses is exemplified by recent news stories covering the emergence of Yik Yak and other anonymous social media applications as a vehicle to intimidate, harass and threaten individual students and student groups.”
The letter cited other anonymous platforms such as 4chan, BurnBook, and After School, claiming they had also been used to harass students. It went on to cite several universities that are already monitoring such apps, or banning them from college networks altogether.
However, critics such as Reason.com’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown point out that apps like Yik Yak are not affiliated with the schools, and do not fall under the jurisdiction of Title IX and Title VI.
“It’s an app that students can access on their personal phones, in their personal time, to view content that may or may not be posted by fellow students,” Brown wrote. “Arguing that colleges are somehow responsible for monitoring and filtering this content makes no more sense than holding them responsible for all the content on local radio stations or anything any person in the vicinity posts to a personal blog. It’s an unworkable and absurd standard.”
Aside from the fact that colleges have no control over the apps or their content (not to mention the fact that students are under no obligation to use them), there are also First-Amendment implications. Richard Hurley, president of the University of Mary Washington, refused to ban the app from his school’s network earlier this year after a spat of rape and murder threats were directed at students. Obviously such threats are not protected under the First Amendment, but Hurley felt banning the app entirely due to a small amount of individuals posting threats would amount to prior restraint.
“Although I understand that those calling for the ban may be upset that UMW has not ceded to its demands to ban Yik Yak from campus, it is important to understand that as a public university, UMW is obligated to comply with all federal laws—not just Title IX,“ Hurley said. "The First Amendment prohibits prior restraints on speech, and banning Yik Yak is tantamount to a content-based prohibition on speech.”
But despite the fact that the vast majority of Yik Yak users are not involved in harassment (as Brown points out, not even a “significant minority” are involved), and despite the fact that such threats are not protected and should be investigated by law enforcement, the coalition is pressing ahead with its demands. But as Amanda Hess of Slate points out, such censorship may end up hurting the very groups the ban is intended to protect.
“In many cases, students have actually leveraged the app to boost marginalized voices that might not otherwise be heard,” Hess said. “Students routinely use Yik Yak to discuss experiences with mental illness or same-sex attraction or other intimate subjects they don’t feel comfortable announcing on the quad.”