University warns students over Facebook libel

A British university has warned its students that they face disciplinary action if they post messages attacking staff on social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Keele University has told students that they could face legal action from staff for defamation and harassment, and a spokesman said that the university is introducing a new policy to deal with the problem.

"A number of students have already been written to by the university warning them of the unacceptable nature of their comments on Facebook and that any further activity of a similar nature will be dealt with severely," said a university statement, according to the BBC.

A spokesman for the university said that it has not yet decided the details of the policy it will introduce.

The establishment of a policy on the use of social networking sites for all students setting out what is and is not acceptable could in some cases form the grounds for the expulsion of students. It could also act as a significant disincentive to students to post in the first place.

With or without a policy, staff could take legal action in some cases against students over postings, but this may not always be the best course of action, according to one legal expert.

"We would generally advise that going so far as to sue students may tend to be counterproductive in both drawing more attention to the comments made and often provoking ill-feeling and further actions," said Louise Fullwood, a lawyer with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM. "However, taking steps such as Keele has done can usefully set a precedent as to a university's expectation of standards of behavior of its students."

Universities could find that they increasingly have to act in a similar way to Keele as social networking sites grow in popularity and university staff become the subject of comments.

One option for universities or for staff is to contact the websites involved directly. The Keele spokesman said that in one of the incidents referred to in its statement the university contacted Facebook and it removed the offending comments directly.

"Most reputable networking sites have terms of use, which require users to warrant and agree that their use of the service will not be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable," said Fullwood. "Where a posting breaches such terms then the website operator could be requested to delete the relevant entries or ban the users concerned."

"While there is no intention to stop students having fun and using these sites in a responsible manner, we draw the line at offensive, derogatory statements," said a statement from the university. "We will not tolerate abuse of any kind and whilst open debate is encouraged, it must be carried out in a responsible manner without resulting in any individual feeling victimised or harassed."

Legal action over such postings does have a precedent. Former teacher Jim Murray successfully sued an ex-pupil for libel over comments posted on Friends Reunited, an early British social networking site.