Students' Internet postings viewed by more than many realize

In February, a Facebook group called "SUNY Geneseo's Advocates of the Chilly Climate" became the subject of campus-wide discussion, an example of Internet material's increasing ability to reach unexpected viewers.

Group members appeared to espouse racial and other discriminatory sentiments by encouraging the use of stereotypes and insults such as "toad-sucking, bath-skipping b****" and "tacky cross-wearing, Jesus-loving, wannabe saint." A recent addition to the group's online description declared that it was "a satirical response to the racial tolerance program performed during freshman orientation" at Geneseo and "was never meant to offend anyone." The group, which originally boasted over 25 members, quickly reduced to one after news of it spread in late February.

An anonymous member claimed the group was "not anti-tolerance...but rather criticized intolerance by adopting a facade that illuminates how ridiculous intolerance is, much in the way that Stephen Colbert pokes fun at conservatives." The individual said the group was created to express a common sentiment amongst members - that Geneseo's orientation programs insult the intelligence of new students with presentations suitable for a more juvenile audience. "We don't need pre-packaged programs or catchy slogans that beg to be satirized to teach us about tolerance. If they want to reach us, they need to do it in a way that doesn't sound so forcedly categorized or like a fifth-grade assembly," the individual said.

English professor Celia East-on was among faculty members who became aware of the group's existence and were disturbed by it. "As an advocate of free speech, I am not in favor of stopping the members of this group from expressing their opinions," she said. "It isn't illegal or in violation of the code of conduct to belong to such a group or to express such opinions." When people sign their names to a Facebook page, however, "they are subject to public scrutiny," said Easton. The event highlights the issue of students posting material online without considering who may end up viewing it.

According to a July 2006 press release from CollegeGrad.com, "there is a growing trend in the number of employers who are Googling candidates to find additional information." CollegeGrad.com President Brian Kreuger said "the trend has now spilled over to the use of Internet social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, for screening potential employees."

Jerry Wrubel, director of Career Services, has yet to encounter a student who has botched the job search by claiming certain views or behaviors unacceptable to potential employers. But divulging information such as personal opinions or behaviors in a seemingly benign way can backfire. "When you move from the stance of student to job seeker or grad school applicant, there's a dimension there that maybe wasn't considered before. The more you put out there, the more you will be judged upon," Wrubel said. "If you're going to give away that information, it's conceivable that someone might see it and draw conclusions that work against you." Wrubel noted that employers are basically given a double opportunity to discriminate when students or job seekers offer unneeded information. "Why invite criticism by putting those things out there?" he asked. "I would recommend that people be very careful and recognize the fact that they're moving into a new stage in life."

Psychology professor Dr. Monica Schneider commented, "I think one of the reasons why this received so much attention was because it was in writing, in public, using words that people know other people use and other people believe. But it's almost a physical representation [of the problem]." Schneider continued, "Before you put [material] out there and frame it a certain way, think about the implications for you personally, you professionally, for other folks living in your community."

When personal or controversial information is presented online, it becomes public domain. Psychology professor Ganie DeHart said that "part of being college-age is exploring things and being a little less tied down by parental and school control." But joking about racism "does have a much bigger impact for students on a campus that's so predominantly white, as Geneseo is," DeHart said. "The message I would want students to get is to think about what they're doing and its effects on others," she said.

English professor Irene Belyakov pointed to the feeling of having a full veil of comfort and anonymity when on the Web, which leads people to believe that they are protected by this seeming privacy. "But it doesn't exist," she said. "Once you put it on the Internet, anyone can read it, and once anyone can read it, then it could become potentially very, very harmful," Belyakov said.

All incoming freshmen and transfers are required to attend two New York State-mandated sessions which are part of the orientation program organized by the Center for Community: a program about the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault, and a presentation on New York State hate crime and bias-related incident legislation. According to Easton, the mandate from the state Legislature was a response to a serious assault on Asian students at SUNY Binghamton a number of years ago.

"The program is in the process of changing," said Dr. Lenny Sancilio, dean of students. "We're trying to update it, make it better - a project that will come out of the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services." Sancilio noted that the changes are definitely not taking place in response to the Chilly Climate Facebook group. "These changes have been in the works for a while," he said, "but the new coordinator of multicultural programs, Fatima Johnson, didn't start until November."

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