At What Point Does a Student’s Rights End & the University’s Rights Begin When Awarding Degrees?

The headline looked common enough: School Sued Over MySpace Photo Response. It appeared affixed to an Associated Press story posted online by comcast.net recently.Apparently a woman was denied a teaching degree on the eve of graduation because she published her picture captioned “Drunken Pirate” on her MySpace. The photo, apparently taken at a 2005 Halloween party, showed Stacy Snyder wearing a pirate hat while drinking from a plastic “Mr. Goodbar” cup.Jane Bray, dean of the School of Education at Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania, took exception to Snyder’s photo, accusing Snyder of promoting underage drinking.Although Snyder apologized, she learned the day before graduation that she would not be awarded an education degree or teaching certificate. Snyder was instead granted a degree in English last year.Snyder, who is now 27 and reportedly works as a nanny, has sued Millersville University, seeking $75,000 in damages. All of this raises some interesting questions about how this legal action will play out in court if it gets that far.This story caught my attention because I had been chair of a board of directors for 9 years at a private school, a 20-year veteran in the news business, an editor of a daily newspaper, and a publisher of a newspaper property.Here are some of my thoughts on the significance of this news event.1) Was Stacy Snyder intentionally trying to promote underage drinking? I doubt it.She did apologize for her apparent indiscretion, but it was not enough to ensure her the education degree and teaching certificate she thought she had earned. I do not know how Pennsylvania handles its education students, but I suspect that the education degree would come from the university and the initial teaching certificate would come from the state.To say she was looking for some attention in publishing her MySapce photo might be an understatement. As a potential teacher in a public or private school, I doubt any school board or school superintendent would be impressed by her sense of judgment, regardless of her motive. It takes more than good intentions to be a good role model as a teacher, it takes good actions and good decisions as well. Clearly, Stacy Snyder’s apparent actions were neither consequence free or well timed. The exuberance of youth is sometimes only exceeded by its stupidity.You could say that Jane Bray, the dean of the School of Education at Millersville, might be very conservative in her views. You could also say that she has some standards of expected behavior that will be enforced.2) I am not sure there is anything stopping Stacy Snyder from applying for an initial teaching certificate from the State of Pennsylvania, assuming that it is the state that grants teaching certificates and not the university. Perhaps Pennsylvania might be a little more forgiving of Snyder’s stupidity.3) Snyder could enroll in another qualified college or university and seek to get an education degree. Schools of higher learning love income and all schools do not have the same standards, for education or issuing degrees.4) If Synder’s suit has any legs to stand on, she should be suing for a lot more money if this incident has destroyed her teaching career. Perhaps for $750,000 or $1.75 million. As a teacher in today’s public education system, it is not unreasonable to assume her income may reach one of those levels should she teach for the next 30 or 35 years. After all, inflation doubles about every 20 to 22 years.5) Synder has perhaps learned a valuable lesson about instant communication in today’s world. When someone says an insignificant story can go around the world in 8 seconds, they are not exaggerating. A significant story may even travel faster and be seen by millions more viewers.6) It would be easy to postulate but difficult to accurately predict about how much Synder’s photo might negatively influence the generations of children in the present and future.Such speculation does remind me of Ronald Reagan’s answer as to why he was not working harder as President. As I recall Reagan said I have been told that working hard will not kill you, but I figure why take chances?7) Freedom of speech is a guaranteed right in the 1st Amendment to our United States Constitution. While this is so, freedom of speech does not allow one to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, so our freedom of speech does tend to stop when that freedom needlessly endangers our fellow citizens.So much for Stacy Snyder.What about Jane Bray and Millersville University?1) Does a university have the power and the right to determine to whom it will award degrees? I think so.Perhaps the question is, does the standards at this university include a written, published standard of behavior as well as a standard of performance in learning and testing? I not have a clue if that is the case at Millersville University, but I seriously suspect that it is so.Otherwise, there might not be any basis for Jane Bray’s decision not to award an education degree to Stacy Snyder. Perhaps Bray found Snyder’s behavior to be unseemly for a professional teacher who is educated at Millersville University. Snyder certainly has the right to post whatever pictures she wants on her MySpace website. MySpace certainly has the right to take away her website if it does not meet the posting standards for MySpace website users. MySpace has the right to control its online business space.Millersville University is, according to its Internet website, a public liberal arts university. The University certainly has a right to set and enforce educational standards in awarding degrees.Does Millersville University have the right to set and enforce behavioral standards in awarding degrees? I think this a very good and pertinent question. The answer might well depend upon whether the University has written and published standards of behavior, and the evidence to show that students have agreed to and accept those standards in exchange for the right to earn a degree.Exactly where does Synder’s personal rights end and the University’s rights begin?Synder is paying for a service, the available educational training and knowledge to earn a degree by meeting the University’s standards of performance. Does that standard include behavioral as well as educational performance?Does Snyder’s personal actions off campus constitute any more or less of an egregious breach of behavior than on campus? Would the University’s authority in this matter carry more weight if Snyder were a student on campus rather than off campus?A statement issued by Millersville University on its website today denied the claims alleged by Ms. Stacy Snyder and also said this:”Due to federal student privacy restrictions, the University is unable to directly respond to media accounts related to the case. The University notes, however, that all of its educational decisions are based on a full range of academic performance issues, not solely on a student’s personal website or social networking site.”Yikes! I am glad I do not have to defend Millersville University in this case. I would instantly be looking for a new attorney team.I think I understand the University’s position and why it merits some serious consideration in a court of law. Should Snyder prevail in her suit against Millersville University, what sort of Web-published photos might we expect to see among future students?This might play itself out in a court of law because we are a republic and not a democracy.In a democracy, Stacy Snyder might have virtually no chance of success. Her complaint might easily be voted against by a majority interested in maintaining certain standards of credibility. In a republic, Snyder’s chances improve immensely because the law is no respecter of majority rule. In the law are rights that exceed the limits of our imagination, and sometimes even our stupidity.Copyright © 2007 Ed Bagley

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legal, personal injury, 1st Amendment, free speech, MySpace, online photos, teachers, educators

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