Law professor’s request to investigate student social media conduct denied

Wells said investigating students’ social media posts is “not what the Honor Code requires.”

Professor Richard Reuben sent an email to School of Law students and faculty Dec. 4 requesting a formal investigation into whether law students broke the school’s Honor Code when they posted on social media sites regarding recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Associate Dean Christina E. Wells, whose research focuses on free expression issues, said she denied Reuben’s request in a Dec. 5 email to law students and faculty.

“(Reuben’s) request is so diffuse as to amount to a request that I investigate every statement potentially made on Facebook, Twitter, text messaging or any other Internet medium involving students’ personal communications,” Wells said in the email. “That is simply not what the Honor Code requires."

The grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown has motivated numerous protests, including a Dec. 2 MU4MikeBrown demonstration in the MU Student Center that drew hundreds of attendees.

Many students have taken to social media, as people around the nation have, to discuss and respond to both sides of the issue. In some cases, those responses have been threatening and prompted law enforcement officials to respond.

In his email, Reuben characterized the expressed opinions of several anonymous law students as “name calling, marginalization, and verbal thuggery."

Reuben said he holds law students at MU to a higher standard when evaluating their engagement in civil discourse. He said this propriety of speech reaches into every facet of young lawyers’ lives, even their conduct on social media.

“Being a professional lawyer constrains some of the tactics we use to engage in argument,” Reuben said. “If you don’t like it, don’t be a lawyer. These are the rules that we play by. If you want to engage in intimidation, if you want to lose, go right ahead. You just can’t be a lawyer.”

Reuben also said that he wants students to be aware of the potential negative consequences that rash and inflammatory remarks on social media can have on students’ future employment prospects.

“Employers look at posts. I can say without hesitation that if one of those kids is seeking to apply for a job at a large law firm, (these posts are) not going to reflect well on their candidacy,” he said. “It’s not just their personal lives; we operate in a large, complex and integrated world.”

Reuben said that the heinous nature of some students’ comments merited a formal investigation because he thought some provisions of the Law School’s Honor Code could be applied to what was said.

“As a member of the faculty, if I see what I believe to be an Honor Code violation, I’m duty bound to bring that to attention, so I did,” he said. “The posts were shocking.”

Shocking though they may be, Wells said she doesn’t think the code can be applied as a disciplinary tool in this case.

“The Law School’s Honor Code does not authorize me to initiate spontaneous investigations of unidentified students’ personal, non-university Internet communications simply because someone has publicly requested (it),” she said in an email. “The Honor Code empowers me to investigate specific allegations against specific people of specific violations of the Honor Code.”

In his email, Reuben also included the director of the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, Noor Azizan-Gardner so that she could “provide support and oversight as may be appropriate."

Azizan-Gardner said she was unaware of the specifics of this particular case. However, she explained the role that the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative could play in cases like the one at the Law School.

“The facilitation of difficult dialogues have always been our focus and strength,” she said. “We will continue to work with students, faculty and staff on campus-wide efforts to discuss these complex issues and work together as a community to move forward as a campus, state and nation.”

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