UNC student-athletes are required to adhere to policies set forth by the NCAA, the UNC Department of Athletics and their teams in regards to what they can and cannot post online. Their speech online is monitored by a team representative and Varsity Monitor, a private company.
Athletic department officials say the policies are in place to protect UNC’s image and student-athletes, but legal experts say they violate the student-athletes’ First Amendment rights, which guarantee citizens will not be censored by the government or public bodies, like UNC.
Cathy Packer, co-director of UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, said universities are marketplaces of ideas that require the participation of all.
“That is why students come here, and that’s how they learn,” she said. “They learn to be smart and responsible speakers, and they learn to be tolerant of what others say. If what students reveal is some wrongdoing, the problem is the wrongdoing.”
The athletic department has an overall social media policy for student-athletes, which stipulates students portray themselves, their team and UNC in a positive manner at all times. It also restricts various types of speech, including “derogatory language” and unlawful speech, such as violent threats or libel.
Packer said not all people are treated equally under the First Amendment. Students have less free speech than adults, and student-athletes have even less than their peers.
“I just think we want our student-athletes to really be students,” Packer said. “And to really be students, they should be able to use social media and engage in online conversations with other students.”
Policies have ranged from not allowing players to post more than 10 Facebook photos, a softball team policy, to not having a negative attitude, which is a women’s basketball team rule.
Steve Kirschner, spokesman for the UNC Department of Athletics, said student-athletes are held to a different standard because they are highly visible in the public.
“There are people who say, ‘They need to be treated the same as other students,’ but the fact is, they aren’t treated the same. Representing the University is not a right — it’s a privilege,” he said.
Student Press Law Center Director Frank Lomonte said that argument does not hold up legally.
“Universities like to claim that your athletic scholarship is privilege and not a right. That’s not the case,” he said. “The government can’t make even a discretionary privilege contingent on adhering to a code of appropriate speech.”
For example, driver’s licenses are privileges, but they cannot be revoked by the government if someone doesn’t like your tweets, Lomonte said.
Softball Coach Donna Papa said the team’s policy is similar to that of a company’s expectations of its employees.
“They have a right to free speech,” she said. “However, in this scenario, a lot of these kids are on scholarship, and they represent the University. Like being in the workplace, you have the obligation to represent the workplace in a positive manner.”
Lomonte said UNC is constitutionally allowed to limit their employees’ speech, but student-athletes are not employees.
“They are trying to use the same rules that apply to a college employee to the athletes,” he said. “Unless they want to put these athletes on the payroll, they don’t get to treat them like employees when they partial out First Amendment rights.”
A women’s basketball “Team Standards” state “any profanity, inappropriate pictures or pornographic material on your website will be grounds for punishment and revoking your website privileges.”
All players must accept Greg Law, director of basketball operations, and Varsity Monitor as their friends on websites like Facebook.
“With women’s basketball specifically, we do a broad media training,” said Mark Kimmel, a spokesman for the women’s basketball team.
“It’s a way to promote themselves and market themselves.”
Meghan Lyons, a former UNC field hockey player and a 2013 graduate, said she never viewed the social media policies as an infringement on her First Amendment rights.
“It was always just more about educating,” Lyons said. “There was never a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Lyons said UNC gave her the tools to brand herself positively — she now works for Google Plus.
Papa said the seniors on the softball team are included in the decision-making process for their team. In last year’s policy, softball players were only able to post ten photos on Facebook. They also were only allowed to have profile pictures from the neck up.
“I used to limit them to more headshots, because some people’s perception of what is revealing and what is not is different,” she said.
Papa said that rule is no longer in place this year. Players are still required to represent UNC well, and after their second warning regarding an inappropriate post, their website privileges will be revoked. This policy is approved by the senior players, she said.
Lomonte said there are no court decisions regarding the topic of student-athletes and free speech, because student-athletes essentially never challenge the policies in court.
“As long as you are on the team and want to stay on team, you are going to stay quiet,” he said.
Student-athletes would have a strong legal case if they chose to take these policies to court, Packer said.
“It doesn’t endear you to your coach if you sue,” she said. “They are not thinking about the First Amendment, they’re thinking about playing.”
Lyons said the standards for student-athletes is different from those of non-athlete students, and she said she understood the policies.
“When you are a student at the University, you are representing your family, your university and all of these respective parties,” she said. “When you’re an athlete, you are always representing the University. You are the Carolina brand.”