Zach Greenberg writes for the Martin Center about a disturbing aspect of university policies toward students’ online presence.

In 1980, Apple founder Steve Jobs called the computer “a bicycle for our minds.” Today, the advent of smartphones gives individuals the power to share images instantaneously with the rest of the world, often accompanied by an admonishment to college-bound students to “watch what you post online.”

That is merited advice, as colleges and universities continue to seek out, surveil, and review the images posted by their current and admitted students. But educational institutions themselves must be held accountable when their review of images leads to actions that violate students’ expressive rights.

Far too often, schools punish their students for the pictures, videos, and images they post online.

At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work, we focus on defending student and faculty free speech rights and encouraging universities to uphold those rights, even when it is difficult and unpopular to do so. With increasing frequency, we see colleges and universities failing to adhere to their free speech obligations.

For example, just this summer, FIRE criticized Fordham University for punishing a student over an Instagram photo memorializing the Tiananmen Square massacre which featured the student holding a firearm. For this display of political expression, Fordham found the student responsible for violating university policies on “threats/intimidation,” earning the student disciplinary probation and a ban from campus, campus athletics, and leadership roles in student organizations. Fordham also required the student to take bias training and write a letter of apology.

In an eerily similar case at Long Island University-Post in 2018, the university summoned a student back to campus from his summer break to answer for posting a photo of his legally obtained firearm. Like at Fordham, there was no evidence the student posed a threat to anyone, yet that did not stop the university from investigating his clearly protected expression.