Are Law Professors Allowed to Have On-Line Friends?

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There have been some great posts on social networking and in particular, Facebook (see here, here, here, and here for just a few examples). There have even been posts on whether academics should use Facebook, like this one.

I don’t want to wander into that discussion…instead I want to talk about a different type of on-line community — the non-law related, subject area discussion forum — and the potential negative effects it has for law professors.

Consider a true story – the names and many details have been changed to protect the guilty (and no, it’s NOT about me)…

Jill is a visiting assistant professor at No-Name Law School, hoping to land a tenure track job somewhere. In addition to reading fascinating cases and writing fancy legal papers, she has other non-law related hobbies…like knitting. Because she is passionate about knitting, she has mentioned it to her class. She also belongs to a website devoted to knitting – the members get to know each other through posting in various threads, some devoted to knitting patterns, others to knitting skills, and finally, some threads devoted to non-knitting chit chat. Jill has been an active member of the board, and has even met some of her fellow knitters IRL. One day, on the board, Jill posts in a daily chitchat thread that she is having a miserable day because one of her students (unnamed) turned in an assignment of questionable quality.

The next day, Jill is called into her dean’s office and told to discontinue posting on the knitting board because one of her students complained. The Dean said that it was inappropriate for her to mention that any student of hers was doing poorly in an online forum and that she had acted unprofessionally.

Obviously, one of the coolest things about the Internet is the ability to find other people who enjoy your same interests and hobbies. Another cool thing about the Internet is the ability to maintain at least a modicum of anonymity. But what happens if you want to be friends (in the traditional sense – not in the Facebook sense) with these people you meet? Can you not share the circumstances of your day, something I consider a quintessential “friend” activity, with these people on-line? Bottom line – are law professors allowed to have on-line friends? (This puts aside the debate, of course, that you can have on-line friends at all, but stay with me.)

The way I see it, the answer is probably no. Let’s go back to Jill – Jill has gotten to know a bit about some her fellow knitters, either via on-line communication or by meeting in real life. The main point of her communication with them, however, remains the knitting forum. But Jill considers them her friends and wants to engage in friend-like behavior with them. What can Jill do?

1) Jill could stay off the online site or use it simply to retrieve knitting patterns. No friends.

2) Jill could participate in the discussion boards in a very limited sense – generally relating no personal information at all. No friends.

3) Jill could be careful not to mention her knitting hobby to her students, in the hopes that no student would ever find her there. She might be able to make friends, but she could still be discovered.

4) Jill could do what she did – she talked about her day in a way that did not implicate the student (or even the school) in any way…but one of her students, knowing that Jill belonged to the site, had been following her posts there.

Jill’s options seem pretty limited. If she sticks to options 1 or 2, she won’t make any on-line friends. You might think that option 4 seems a bit stalker-ish of the student, but we all know that students (as well as other folks) seek out information (including non-law related data) about their professors online.

Option 3 is not safe, but may be the best option for Jill. However, do we really need to keep our interests secret from our students so they don’t bump into us on-line? One thing that I think helps make professors appear (at least marginally) human is that we (occasionally) do something that isn’t law related. We have hobbies, interests, and other such – just like regular folks.

And even if we don’t disclose these interests out loud, for whatever reason, students have incredible research and deductive powers. For example – students may figure from the fact that I donate a wine & cheese event for the PAD auction each year that I am an oenophile. Some students may then be led to look for me on various wine sites. If I belong to one of these sites, I will have to remain completely anonymous (and friendless) or I will have to risk the same issues that Jill faced. Maybe it’s just easier to not have on-line friends?

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11 Responses

  1. anon says:

    I think this is not specific to being a professor – most professionals now have to weigh the odds that someone who finds their hobby inappropriate will find it on-line with their wilingness to curtail their lives. In the example above, I don’t think it’s a simple yes/no answer. I think it’s a question of – is the risk of negative career impacts worth having these friends, and the answer is probably highly individual based on the satisfactoriness of your off-line social life plus the importance of having friends who share an obscure interest.

    That said, I think things can be minimized more than you think – plenty of lawyers (and other professionals) can’t say much about their worklife to real life friends either because of confidentiality requirements. It’s not a prerequisite of friendship, though it is annoying. I think it’s entirely possible to have on-line friends without saying much negative about your students.

    Plus, many social circles on-line end up branching out from forums and messageboards and using systems like LiveJournal which allows you to lock certain posts to certain groups of users. This is a good option once more casual on-line friendships are established that allows you to share personal data with much lower (though not zero) risk of it being exposed.

  2. ER says:

    Option 5: Jill could post more innocuous information, or statements she would be comfortable being overheard (by several million of her closest friends) saying aloud, while saving “friend” discussions of more sensitive sorts for the personal, one-to-one messaging (available in most any on-line forum) between her and individual members of her knitting board.

    In other words, it’s unlikely Jill would discuss her student, even with her friend, in a public restaurant, where any number of people could overhear. She would probably consider that unethical, given that it is possible (though still unlikely) that someone could overhear and identify the student through information even Jill thinks is innocuous. She would save that kind of discussion for a more private place, such as during their car ride to the restaurant. If she did otherwise, the dean would be entirely justified in calling her on it.

    Why should her online activity be any different? Anybody – members and non-members of her knitting board alike – could see her comments in the public posting. If she sent a private message or an e-mail to a particular online friend, those comments would not be broadcast to the world.

  3. Karl says:

    Or maybe the dean could tell this overly-sensitive student to mind his own business and not to assume that the professor was discussing him. In other words, the dean should have told the student to “get over himself.” And, “Jill” should never have been the wiser, blithely going about the business of enjoying her life.

  4. Yes, I agree with ER for the most part. Your analogy is flawed.

    Sure I could share the fact (not that I’m saying this is true) that many of my college algebra students are complete idiots who never come to class on a forum, but that’s not analogous to telling my real-world friends. That’s analogous to going to a cocktail party and telling everyone I meet, whether I know them personally or not, that same information. The situation analogous to telling my meat-friends is talking to net-friends over an instant messenger program.

  5. Kristen Osenga says:

    Maybe I’m in the minority, ER – but I regularly talk to my friends and family about my work in a restaurant. I certainly don’t mention names (as my friend also did not in her posting) – but I’ve certainly said something of the ilk (in a public place) that “these exams are the worst I’ve graded”…or that “only one student wrote a decent first draft.” I don’t believe this to be improper. Does this change when you get into a public internet forum vs. a restaurant? I don’t think it’s so unlikely as you state.

  6. anon says:

    So have I, Kristen, but I suspect that were we overheard by students making those comments in a restaurant, our odds of being reprimanded would be about the same if a similar comment was discovered in a knitting forum. And, at least if it’s a restaurant near the university, our odds of being overheard might even be higher in a restaurant.

  7. Janus says:

    The person could have two profiles–one professional, one personal. I think Ning lets you do that.

  8. Miriam Cherry says:

    I’m with both ER and Karl on this one.

    Option 5 listed is just more professional.

    That being said, one would think the administration would be enlightened and understand that the student was overly involved – to go into a knitting forum is almost “cyberstalking” the professor.

    Some lessons from this. For the professor – nothing you write in a public forum is a “secret,” so make sure you keep your boundaries clear. For the student – an illustration of the axiom that sometimes if you look too hard, you find things you, well, don’t want to see.

  9. Andrew Siegel says:

    Either the facts here have been changed so much that they don’t resemble what actually happened or the Dean involved has a serious over-reaction problem. In explaining her mental state, Jill revealed the following information: (1) there was an assignment in her class due that day; (2) (at least) one student did a poor job on the assignment; and (3) she cared enough about her students’ performance to be upset about the fact that one of the assignments weren’t very good. Which part of that exactly is confidential? Or reflects badly on her? Or is even, frankly, surprising?

  10. Andrew Siegel says:

    Either the facts here have been changed so much that they don’t resemble what actually happened or the Dean involved has a serious over-reaction problem. In explaining her mental state, Jill revealed the following information: (1) there was an assignment in her class due that day; (2) (at least) one student did a poor job on the assignment; and (3) she cared enough about her students’ performance to be upset about the fact that one of the assignments weren’t very good. Which part of that exactly is confidential? Or reflects badly on her? Or is even, frankly, surprising?